/ Language: English / Genre:sf_stimpank,

Bactine

Paul Kater

A steampunk sci-fi story about the adventures of a soldier in intergalactic service, after being shipped off to a very remarkable planet. Sailing will never be the same again…

BACTINE

by Paul Kater

1. Daniel

The white ceiling of the small cabin that Daniel could call his own was not any help. His thoughts kept racing around the insanity that had been the past day. It was after all not everyday a soldier woke up in a new body.

He lifted an arm and looked at the super smooth skin that Rhonda had outfitted him with. “Damn,” he said, not sounding grateful. Again he recalled the buzzing of the machines that had kept him alive, in the few moments he had been awake during the all the surgeries. Nobody had asked him if he wanted to be repaired, or be patched up. No. Someone at the top had considered he was valuable, and therefore Daniel Zacharias was to be put in the trust of Head Medical Officer Rhonda Flower, one of the leading specialists in applying Bactine.

“The bloody pirates should have shot me up so badly that they had no chance for this,” Daniel shared with the ceiling. But they had not. “Crapshot,” he told the ceiling before he rolled off the bunk and headed over to the small sink. Bactine or not, a splash of water in his face felt good. As the drops fell off his face, he stared at himself in the mirror.

“Good thing you don’t know this, Malcolm,” the soldier told himself. Malcolm Zacharias, businessman and good at that, had always been on Daniel’s case. His younger brother had been the one that got the good jobs, the girls, the money and- bloody everything. Daniel could almost hear the sneering voice: “Military eh? Now look what that got you. I don’t envy you, older brother.”

Daniel walked over to the small view port in his cabin and looked out over the barren environment. The planetoid that the military base was housed on was only a clump of rock. There was some air outside, but not enough for normal people. Not for the kind he had been. After a good stare at the never changing landscape, Daniel pounded his fist against the wall and fell on his bed again.

Slowly he tried to grasp what had gone wrong at the space freighter. He had been sent there, with a small group of two dozen soldiers, to guard the shipment of weapons. It had been a routine run. Less than that even. The weapons were not that impressive, nor was the number of them.

The schedule for guards was the normal thing, four in the cargo bay, two on the bridge, some men scattered about the ship, and the shifts were only five hours per person. And then there had been the pirate ship. It had almost dropped on top of them, out of FTL. That was either an example of excellent navigation or the biggest lump of luck Daniel had ever seen. He would put his money on the latter. They probably had gotten off course somehow and fallen out of Faster Than Light speed on top of the freighter.

He rubbed his eyes, even though there was no need for that. With his eyes closed he sensed the shuddering of the spaceship again as the pirate vessel slammed into it. The alarms that went off as the hull-breach was detected. That had killed at least four of his men already. As the rage rushed through his body, Daniel trembled. Bactine, he now knew, did not prevent that from happening. Which was good and bad.

He recalled running through the corridor, the twisted metal plating they had to jump over and the fireworks that the pirates had surprised them with as they had rounded the corner. Daniel blamed himself for that. He should have been more careful. Not being on duty at that moment had nothing to do with it.

The white and yellow blasts were all he remembered from that moment on. There had not even been pain; it had gone too fast to feel pain. He had simply been shot to bits.

“They should have left me like that. They turned me into a machine.” Daniel knew that was not true but his anger did not allow him to admit that. Rhonda had done a masterly job, putting him back together, using as much of his old body as was usable, and filling the rest up with artificial things. Tendons, muscles, flesh. He wondered all of a sudden if there was anything like proper blood still flowing through his veins. Maybe, he thought, he should get a knife and see what happened after a cut.

“Crap. That won’t work.” A sigh escaped him. Bactine was tough. No knife known to mankind would cut through it. God alone knew where that stuff came from, but it was almost indestructible. Even enhanced kevlar was not as good as the soft tissue that he now consisted of.

“Businessman.” Daniel spat out the word. His only option had been the army. His school results had always been good. Not great, just good. But somehow Malcolm had always stood in his way, taking the wind out of Daniel’s sails. He was an army-man, and a damned good one. He had the new skin to prove it. Another sigh fled from the man’s lips. “Man… yeah, right.”

He did not dare to reach down, or even think that far. Bactine. He was a rebuilt now. Rebuilts were not fertile, so the rule was that any extraneous physical appearance was to be removed. He already hated Bactine, as his manhood had been taken off. A sharp laugh later, he wondered if there was anything left of that, after the shooting he had endured. “Maybe the pirates are to blame for making Daniel Zacharias a eunuch…”

There was a buzz. Someone at the door. Daniel said: “Come in, door’s open.”

Rhonda Flower stepped into the small cabin. “Hey sailor, how’s things with you? Thought I’d check in on you as I am off duty now.” She sat down on the only chair, her eternal camouflage outfit crumpled and smelly. As if she read Daniel’s thoughts, she said: “I know. I stink. Us rebuilts have a more acute sense of smell. Glad to see that’s working well with you.”

“Yes. That does.”

Rhonda frowned. “That bad?” She remembered the expression of pain, anger and despair on Daniel’s face as he had first seen his new and enhanced body.

“Yep.” He had looked at her all the time. Now he turned away his face.

Rhonda got up and kneeled down by the bed. “Daniel. Listen to me. And look at me.” She waited until his eyes were on her again. “It was not my choice, okay? You’ll have to live with it. And remember what I said. You have the cable. Not many people can find such a deep and intense sexual pleasure using a mere cable. We can. I showed you.”

Daniel was silent, as the memory drifted through his head. As he had been released from the recovery table, Rhonda had shown him how to use several storage compartments in his new arms and legs, and also she had this strange little cable. She had shown him how to open a connector-port in his thigh, where the cable could be inserted. At that point he had also learnt that she was a rebuilt, as she had stripped and inserted the cable in her own thigh.

“Yes. You showed me.”

And that was great, Rhonda. That’s what you have to add at this point, Daniel. Because it was.”

“And that was great, Rhonda,” Daniel repeated, a kind of smile on his face.

“Good boy. Now, stop sulking. Go to the gym and work out and be surprised what you can do,” the Head Medical Officer said as she got to her feet again. “And get to bed early. You’ll need it the coming days, as you are adjusting to your new body.”

“Yes, doc,” Daniel said.

Rhonda walked to the door.

“Rhonda?”

She turned and looked at him.

“Thank you.”

“Sure. Just take care of yourself. Good luck with the retraining. I’ll drop by when I can, okay?”

Then the door hissed as it shut itself behind her.

Daniel sighed once again. The gym. After all the mind-numbing running around, that was the last thing he fancied. Yet, something in him was now tickled. Be surprised what you can do, she’d said.

“Let’s go be surprised,” the man told his new body and hoisted himself from the bed. He put on some sports-gear and noticed it gave him a bit of a problem. His new body was bigger, wider, more muscular than the one he’d had before all this; he barely fit in it. “Oh, great. Not only a new body, also more expenses at getting new clothes.” Hardly a miracle they’d given him an overall to wear today. They should have said something.

-=-=-

Daniel returned from the gym. He felt good, so good even that he dared to whistle a tune as he strolled through the corridors on the way back to his cabin.

“Daniel!” someone called out.

Daniel turned and watched. It was eerie, he noticed how his one new eye had located the person calling him sooner than his own eye. That would take some getting used to. “Christian, good to see you.”

Christian Langford was one of the men who had been along on that fatal mission. He had been more fortunate than Daniel, in the attack. The end result however, Daniel had to admit, was less so.

Christian had lost a leg, a foot and three fingers of his right hand. He moved around in a levitational chair. “Man, I am glad to see you too, Daniel. Crap, what a terror that was on that freighter. I had heard they were going to patch you up with Bactine.” There was a mix of emotions in the man’s voice. Relief, for seeing his mate again. Anger, as the trauma and the defeat of the attack was still so fresh and bloody painful. And also envy, to see Daniel being Rebuilt and he had not been so lucky.

“Well, they did. How are you doing, Christian? Any word on what is in store for you?” Daniel instinctively knew how his mate would feel about meeting him, about the new body. “Are they going to make you walk again?”

Christian nodded, making his floating chair rise so he was at eye-level with Daniel. “Yeah. New leg, new foot, and early retirement because of Mary and Jonathan.”

His wife and son, Daniel knew. Yes, that was not a surprise. There were not that many soldiers needed these days, so people were sent off home with a good pension plan quickly.

“I’m glad about all that, Daniel. But I’m sure going to miss this life. We had many a ball together, didn’t we?” Christian grinned. He held out his hand, Daniel slapped it. “Ouch, dammit man, you have to be careful with that.” Chris rubbed his palm. “You don’t want to go smashing up your partners, right?” He said it with a grin.

“Sorry, Christian, just was at the gym, and somehow I still have to learn more control of this… body.” Daniel had almost said ‘abomination’.

“You learn control, Daniel. I’m being shipped off to the hospital on Deimos 9 tomorrow, where they can fix me up. Good thing,” Christian said.

“That is indeed a good thing,” Daniel said. “I hope things will work out perfectly for you, Christian. I’m really sorry about all that happened, believe me.”

Christian looked his friend in the eyes. “It wasn’t your fault these Qurgons fell on our roof, Daniel. Stop beating yourself up for that. Nobody saw that coming. It was a routine flight, with routine orders.”

Daniel nodded. He knew that. But still… “You’re right. Take care, Christian.” They shook hands. “And let’s try to stay in touch.”

“Sure. Always, Daniel.” Christian smiled.

Daniel knew he was sincere. He also knew that it would not happen. It never happened.

2. Training

Daniel woke up with a startle. He’d had the day off yesterday. He had spent it getting new clothes, walking around, thinking, talking to a psychologist specialised in Rebuilts. Daniel had also tried to get drunk. It had not worked. It had only run up his tab. And today he would begin his retraining. The training designed for Rebuilts, to learn how to function properly inside the new body, to make use of all its advantages, and to learn about any disadvantages. He was sure of the latter, although nobody had mentioned to him that there were any.

He looked around for a moment, groggy, trying to find the alarm that had woken him up. “Urgh,” he uttered as he manipulated a thought and the alarm went silent. He had told his inner clock to wake him up at 6:30 sharp. It was 6:30. And it was very bizarre to find out that despite his modified parts he could still feel groggy like a real person. Now there was something the specialists should work on. No hangover, but grogginess still worked.

He got up, dressed and headed to the mess for some food. After that he went to the seventeenth level of the building, where he should report to the commander of his new unit.

R1. That was the unit’s short name. R for Rebuilts, no doubt, Daniel thought as he waved his hand over the identification plaque. The light did not switch to green, the door did not open. “Now what…”

“Can’t get in?” a massive woman asked as she walked up to him. “Sergeant Abbott,” she continued, introducing herself.

“Daniel Zacharias, and indeed, can’t get in.”

“Ah, right. You’re the latest addition. You’ve probably not been authorised. I can fix that for you, just come on in.” Sergeant Abbott opened the door and let him in. Behind the door was a small office, with standard everything.

“Call me Wilma,” the woman said, “and I’ll call you Daniel. We’re low on formalities once we’re in here. Okay?”

“Sure, Wilma.” Daniel said.

She quickly got him authorised in the system, made him go out and come in, which worked all fine now. “Frigids,” she nodded. “Burt will be in soon, go grab some coffee, tea or Blint. It’s over there in the corner.” Upon Daniel’s frown, she explained that Burt, sergeant O’Shaughnessy, was the instructor that he had been assigned to. “And you’re lucky. He’s good. Really good.”

Daniel opted for coffee. Blint had never been his taste. The weird nean-green stuff that was imported from some faraway distant place either agreed with you or made you violently sick.

Three more Rebuilts came in. They all were trainees, like Daniel, and with the program since a few weeks already. Troy, one of the men, was about to go out on missions again, Daniel learnt, and the other two still had some time to go before they were ready. It made him wonder how long the training would be. Shrugging it off did not work.

With four Rebuilt people in there, Wilma’s office was rapidly filling up. “Gentlemen, I would really appreciate it if you were to make yourselves scarce here and give me room to move, okay?” she said.

Troy made a remark about how glad she should be with all the male presence. Daniel frowned at that. Wilma was not a pretty woman, but he was certain she was good for her job, and that was what counted. Phil, one of the others, beat Daniel to pointing that out to Troy and then they moved to a rather large room where they awaited Burt’s arrival.

Burt was an amiable character, Daniel decided at the end of the day. The trainer was a Rebuilt himself, and knew exactly where most of the pains were.

“I’ve been training Rebuilts since four years, Daniel. I’ve seen just about any problem that can come up. Now that does not mean I’ve seen them all. After all, everyone is different and there is no way anyone can predict how someone deals with being Rebuilt. So if there is anything that you are worried about, or you just need someone to talk to, don’t wait. Come to me.” Burt was sincere towards Daniel, as he was towards everyone. “And that goes for wanting to cry also.”

Daniel looked at his trainer in surprise. These last words surprised him. “Beg your pardon?”

Burt nodded, still sincere. “I mean that. It’s not that I expect you to break down and come sobbing, but I do want you to know that you can come to me if you have problems. And also Wilma is able to guide you. She’s had a psychological training for helping people with emotional trauma, and together we worked out how we can fine-tune that for Rebuilt people.”

That was something Daniel had not expected. “Oh. Right.” Something in his face betrayed his thoughts.

“What’s up, Daniel? Spit it out.” Burt waited.

“It’s just that… uhm… it’s just rumours, I guess.” Daniel shook his head, embarrassed that he had been so obvious. The rumours were very untrue.

“What rumours?” Burt did not let Daniel get away like that.

“Things that people say. About Rebuilts.”

Burt nodded. “Tell me about them.”

“You’ve probably heard them before.” Daniel felt awkward. This did not strike him as military stuff.

“So tell me again, Daniel.”

“We used to joke that Rebuilts are robots. Cybord. A kind of humanoid machines.” Daniel felt ashamed about that now.

Burt grinned. “Oh. That. Forget that, Daniel, that’s an old hat. Point is that high command does not want too much integration of regular folk and us Rebuilts. Their reason for that is that regular soldiers will start to feel inferior when they are around us too much, since we’re different. And yes, it is because they are think we are better,” Burt spoke out Daniel’s thought.

Daniel nodded. “Yeah, I can see where that comes from.” With two fingers he lifted the table, just for a few moments.

“Daniel? Don’t.” Burt’s voice sounded commanding. It had to be obeyed. “Don’t fall into that trap, boy. You’re way too smart for that.”

Daniel did not feel like he was falling into something, though. He felt as if he had already gone in, head over Rebuilt heels. “I’ll be fine, Burt. Thanks for the talk.”

“I don’t believe a word of that, but I’ll be easy on you today, Daniel. Now go get some food in yourself and try to relax. There is another day tomorrow, you’ll do and feel better by then.”

“I take it that’s an order?” Daniel asked as he got up.

“No. Take that as a promise.” Burt got up also and put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder, with surprising gentleness. “The first days are always the hardest. It’s tough dealing with a world that’s gone upside down, but you are doing great.”

“Hmm. Doesn’t feel like that, Burt.” Daniel shook his head to emphasise his feelings.

“Let me tell you, Daniel, that you will make it. I always worry about the boys that act as if nothing happened, as if they can pick up their life as if they only suffered a flesh wound. Now get your butt out of here.”

Daniel grinned. “Yes sir.” After a mock salute he left the room.

-=-=-

In the mess he met Phil. His fellow trainee was sitting alone at a table. “Mind if I join you?” Daniel asked.

“No. Please do.”

Daniel took a seat and got ready to eat. “Why aren’t you sitting with Troy and Ludo?”

Phil grinned wryly. “Same reason you don’t, I think. They’re too loud. Not many people like them.” He glanced over at the table where the two others sat, near a window, a full line of empty tables between them and the rest of the star base personnel. “Ludo’s okay, really, he just gets influenced by Troy too much.”

Daniel nodded, he had noticed that too. Just this first day had taught him a lot about the three others already. “Maybe we should try and get Ludo away from Troy,” he said.

“Maybe,” Phil shrugged. “Never really tried. Not sure what Troy will do.”

“We’ll just have to prevent him from being able to do something. Occupy him,” Daniel thought out loud. As he glanced over to the table with the subjects of their talk, he uncomfortably realised that there were also a lot of empty tables between Phil and him and the others.

“Sucks, doesn’t it?” Phil also seemed to be able to read his mind. “We all notice that sooner or later. Old friendships suddenly don’t seem to count anymore once you’re Rebuilt.”

Daniel slowly nodded. He thought back to meeting Christian, just a few days ago. Chris had been friendly and had agreed to stay in touch, but had not responded to the two messages Daniel had sent, wishing him well with the surgery and recovery. Received. Not replied.

“We’ve all been there, Daniel. It gets better after a while.”

“I guess. I hope that ‘whiles’ are short then.”

“Uh-oh…” Phil said. The reason became clear quickly as Troy walked up to their table.

“Hey, Daniel. Why are you joining the lonely crew? Plenty of seats where Ludo and me are.”

“I’m good here, Troy. Thanks for asking though,” Daniel replied to the Rebuilt man.

“Good? Did you notice that’s Phil?” Troy raised his voice to an unnecessary volume. He had a loud voice to start with, so now he wanted to make sure he’d be heard by everyone.

“Come on, Troy,” said Daniel, “no need for this. We’re eating.”

“Yeah. I see that. I do hope you enjoy sitting together, girls.” With that the man turned and walked back to his table, wiggling his hips in a very stupid way.

“Asshole,” Phil muttered.

“I heard that, Phyllis,” Troy said without turning back to them. The ears of a Rebuilt were quite a lot better than those of regular people, after all.

“Let him,” Daniel said, not caring if Troy heard him or not. “He’s not worth the air you spend on that.”

“I know. He just pisses me off so easily,” Phil grumbled.

“And he knows that. You provide him with far too much wood to light his fire. Don’t. Ignore him. Be correct and no more.” Daniel turned back to his food. He knew that Troy would be mocking them. And Ludo would play along with the game, as he apparently had no desire to resist Troy.

“Let’s just hope he’s leaving us soon. Goes on a mission. Far away.” Phil then fell silent again also.

Daniel agreed with Phil in the same silence.

After dinner, Daniel went for a walk around the less populated part of the base. He needed some time to clear his head, get things in the right perspective. He was happy with Burt being his trainer. That man was someone he would never have expected in this situation. Not only was he a Rebuilt also, he truly seemed to understand people.

He reached the Glass Dome, a place that was originally designed to be an observatory. Only after completion the smart folks had discovered it was looking at the wrong side of the constellation. As the place had been built, it had been left there, and a new Dome had been built at the right place. This now was a place where a person could feel alone. Daniel loved coming to the Glass Dome. Usually there was nobody here, there was nothing that obstructed one’s vision, and it was quiet.

He sat down, his back against the wall, and stared up at the stars and the few odd and uninhabitable planets that were visible from there. From that place he thought about Troy, Ludo and Phil. Troy, he decided, was probably one of the types that Burt would worry about. He was nothing but loud, bragging and too carefree about being a Rebuilt. Maybe it was worth looking up why Troy had been Rebuilt; there had to be something about him that warranted that. Ludo… now there was a character Daniel could not see through. The man was okay, struck him as reliable. But only without the likes of Troy around. An overwhelming personality would swipe Ludo off his feet and take over his thinking. A dangerous trait. Phil was a good man. Too short a fuse at times, Daniel considered, judging how easily Troy could anger him.

“Hey, sailor,” a voice pulled Daniel from his ponderings. It was Rhonda, in her eternal camouflage. “Mind if I come sit here also?”

“No, do sit,” Daniel said.

Rhonda asked how he was doing. How the first real day had gone by. And if he had any questions about his new body. “Not the kind that your trainer can answer, of course.”

He had none.

Rhonda smiled. She pulled a cable from her pocket. “Gosh. Now look what I found here.” She slipped one end in Daniel’s hand.

3. It just sucks

Daniel wiped sweat from his forehead. Yes, he had found out that Rebuilts could sweat just fine. Bactine was no cure for that. For the ninth time he worked over the drill that Burt had given him to tackle. He was hanging from a rope, holding on with one hand, carrying a mock-up of a seventy lbs rocket destroyer unit in the other hand. The artificial gravity had been cranked up to a sweet five times regular atmosphere. The objective of this training was to let go of the rope and grab one that was swinging beneath him, ninety feet lower, while not losing the destroyer in the attempt. So far he had managed to miss the lower cable and lose the rocket destroyer most times. Only once he’d gotten the cable, dropping the destroyer, and twice he had ended up on the floor one hundred and twenty feet below, the destroyer next to him. Hooray for Bactine bodies. At least they could take a beating like that without a problem.

“Daniel. Concentrate. This is easy, just do it.” Burt’s voice sounded in his head. The Bactine body had been equipped with short range radio so communication could be established without the need for external gadgets.

“Damn you, Burt, it’s not easy. It’s confusing as hell.” Daniel blinked and shook his head. The sweat was seeping in his eyes, which was annoying enough. Things got even more complicated as his electronic eye kept displaying gobsmacks of readout that he should be able to take advantage of. Instead of being helpful however, the numbers and graphs obstructed his vision. He blamed that for missing the lower cable so often: the jumps in his eye distracted him.

“What’s the problem, Daniel? Things should be clear, not confusing.”

Daniel reported what bothered him.

“Damn. You’re one of those,” Burt said. “Hang on.”

“Sure, I’m comfortable here.” Daniel grinned to himself as he considered his situation. He’d never been squeamish, but he was certain that this would have made him feel lousy in a matter of seconds, in his old physical state.

A few minutes later Daniel heard Burt’s voice again. “Give it one more try, Daniel. Last go. I’ve arranged that your optical info-stream will be reduced. If that still doesn’t work, we’ll have it shut down completely.”

“Can’t they switch it off remotely?” Daniel wanted to know. They couldn’t. “That’s technology for you,” he mumbled. He gave it one more try, as well as he could.

On his way down he focussed on the wire that he was supposed to grab. Everything was going well, until a graph jumped up in his eye that elaborated on the optimal speed of reach, a countdown that showed him when to reach, and the estimated g-force his body would be taking on a successful grab. Daniel missed the rope and had plenty of time to finish thinking a nasty word before he smashed into the ground once more.

A graph popped up for a few seconds, informing him on the force of impact, as well as a rapid run-down of the result of the automatic systems check that had been performed. He had seen those enough for one day.

The gravity was brought down again, then Burt came in. “That looked painful, Daniel. Go see Jan or Rhonda at the medical bay, they’ll adjust the opticals for you.” The trainer picked up the battered destroyer mock-up. “If you do that to your enemies, I’ll be satisfied.” He grinned.

Daniel forced a grin out also as he got up. There was nothing wrong with his body, he decided. Optical displays were one thing, personal confirmation and the absence of pain still was better. “Okay, Burt. Thank you. When do you expect me back?”

“Oh, try to make it somewhere this afternoon, after lunch. Then we’ll try this one again.”

Daniel sighed. “Okay.” Then he walked off to change. His practice clothes bore the signs of the suffering his body had endured.

Rhonda was not at the medical bay. Jan Reynolds, her second in command, greeted Daniel. “Hello there, how are we today?”

“I’ve seen better days,” Daniel grumbled. He sat down in the chair that Jan pointed at.

“And worse?” Jan inquired as she took a small device and pressed it against his temple.

“I guess. Getting shot to bits is not great, that’s true.” The number of readouts in his eye went down from eight to three.

“Here, is that better?” Jan asked as she put the device to the side.

“Better. Still not great. Can’t you get rid of all that stuff for me?”

“I can, but I only have orders for what I just shut down.” Jan shrugged. “Sorry.”

Daniel nodded. “Okay. Thanks for that anyway, it’s already less annoying.” He was certain that Rhonda would have shut the whole display down no matter what.

“It’s really bad, isn’t it?” Jan sat down next to him. “I’m not a Rebuilt, Daniel, I don’t know what it is like. But if you want to talk about it I am willing to listen.”

“That’s kind of you, Jan. Thank you for the offer. I think it is something I have to work out on my own though. It’s my body, my life, my- future.” Just in time he had replaced the word ‘fate’.

“Okay. My offer stands though,” said the nurse, getting up again. She patted him on the shoulder. “Good luck, Daniel.”

“Thank you, Jan.” Daniel blinked a few times. Better. Somewhat. He left the nurse and walked around a bit, ending up in his quarters, staring out the window. He wondered if high command had made a smart move by saving him. Perhaps he was not the kind to become a Rebuilt. Perhaps he’d been better off dead, blown to bits by Qurgon pirates. He did not recall any pain, just the lights from their weapons. It should have been a quick and merciful death.

In his mind he pictured the memorial service that would have been held in his honour. He tried to envision who would be there. His sister, certainly, with whatever person was her present boyfriend or -girl at. And his brother, with his wife and children. Provided, Daniel thought bitterly, he could be bothered to get away from some executive board meeting. Malcolm really fit in with these tight-assed white-collared idiots.

Flashes of the past came to Daniel. He heard the voice of his brother again.

I can always get you a job in our company, dear brother.” Malcolm had just gotten a good position in a firm then, and rubbed it in Daniel’s face as often as he could.

After yet another rejection for a job, Daniel had mentioned his intention to join the army, the space forces to his brother. That was something he regretted until this day. It also had strengthened his decision to join the space forces. And he had gotten in there on the first attempt.

Cynthia had been thrilled for him. His sister had written him a real paper letter, in her minute handwriting. He had saved it, still had it. Daniel smiled as he thought of it. That was so much more valuable than the sneer of his younger brother. “Not much of a start, is it? They accept everyone clearly.

Daniel turned away from the window. “Damn you, Malcolm. Why are you haunting me now?” His anger flared up, and he hated it.

The Rebuilt man skipped lunch and headed back to the training room with the ropes and the ghastly gravity. “Burt?”

“Right here, Daniel. Early lunch today?”

“No lunch. Jan turned down the mess in my eye and I want to do this. No. I am going to do this.”

“Right on, Daniel. Get the remains of your rocket destroyer, get yourself up there and we’ll give it a go.”

Daniel picked up the smashed-up box and got hauled up to one hundred and seventy feet. “Ready when you are.”

“Jump at will. I’ll swing the rope when you’re off.”

Daniel didn’t even think. He jumped and reached the first stationary rope, twenty feet lower, without a problem. Hanging from one arm he kept an eye on the motion of the rope below him, and at the right time he dove down to it. He couldn’t miss it.

He missed. The rope wasn’t where he’d expected it. The thud he heard as he hit the floor almost washed out the loud twang that came from overhead.

“Sorry, Daniel. The bloody swing-trigger malfunctioned. You were looking good there, though.”

Gravity was lowered again. The door opened. Daniel groaned inside as he heard a voice.

“Hey, Daniela, are you comfortable down there? That was one hell of a landing there, sister!” Troy roared with laughter as he walked to the fallen Rebuilt. He pushed Daniel’s leg with a foot. “Come on, get up. You’re here to learn something, not to lie on your back like a whore.”

Daniel gritted his teeth and waited just long enough before getting up. “We are all here to learn something, Troy,” he then said, noticing Ludo who was waiting by the door.

Troy chuckled. “Yeah. And some learn faster, Daniela. Some learn a lot faster.”

Daniel grinned, confusing Troy and loving that. “You got that right, Troy. So right.”

Ludo did not follow Troy immediately as the latter walked through the door. Instead, he waited for Daniel and quickly said: “Don’t worry, Zacharias. This thing is a stinker. Took me a few times to get it right also.” Then he sauntered off after Troy, as if he was the Rebuilt’s serf.

Daniel went to find Burt and asked permission to get some lunch now, which was fine with Burt. “Just don’t miss class this afternoon. We’re going into things you really should not do with your new body.”

“Isn’t this stuff supposed to be indestructible?” Daniel was surprised by the words of the trainer.

“It is. That’s what the class is for.”

Daniel shook his head as he left. This sounded completely off.

The class however was far from that. Burt told them about the things that they should not do with their bodies, even though there was nothing known to man that would damage them. The most improbable thing that stuck with Daniel was the announcement that they should not volunteer their bodies to be used as a projectile.

Burt explained that someone once had done that. “There is no practical reason that would prevent you from doing it,” he said, “but you have to understand that people who are Rebuilt are part of an elite corps. Turning yourself into a cannonball is not something high command is expecting from someone in whom they have invested so much.”

There had been other reasons, moral ones that made a lot of sense, but this particular one of the cannonball refused to be shot out of Daniel’s mind. After crashing into the ground so often earlier that day, he wondered what the difference was.

4. Moon base (1)

Daniel started waking up before the sound of the alarm actually made it to his eardrums. Whether it was a sixth sense of his own, or one that had been implanted with the Bactine was of no importance. Fact was that he knew it was happening. By the time the sixth whoop sounded, he was almost dressed and while the tenth whoop wailed he was running through the corridors, overtaking people with his long and amazingly powerful steps.

The commander of his group was halfway dressed, his uniform sort of thrown on. Daniel had to wait for information until most of the emergency room was filled. Then the commander spoke.

“We received word from the Hargha system where one of our scientific moon bases is. It’s been taken by a hostile group. It is not yet certain what they are. We do know there were several casualties already as bodies have been seen floating out into space. We are requested to send a team of people to end the crisis. Given the nature of the situation we are asked to send in a team of Reb- enhanced people, together with a medical core-team.”

Most of the Rebuilts, who stood scattered through the room, were excited. Daniel was among them, even if he was the newest of the Rebuilts on the base. That, he knew, would make it very improbable that he got chosen for the mission. He suppressed a snicker at the commander’s attempt to circumvent the word Rebuilt. Enhanced people sounded better.

“The base is located on the second moon of Hargha 9,” the commander continued. “It is a large base, so we’ll need every available enhanced person. Get ready folks, you are on call at platform Gamma 3 in twenty minutes. The core medical team is being put together as we speak. Dismissed. And will someone shut down the bloody alarm.”

All Rebuilts got into action and soon Daniel had packed his stuff together and was pacing along to the designated platform. When he reached it, all seventeen other Rebuilts were there already. Daniel grumbled; he hated it to be the last one there.

Troy frowned at Daniel. Then a smile came to his face, and Daniel did not like that. He probably had missed something important.

“All aboard!” The command came seconds after Daniel had arrived. Rapidly the group split up and boarded two waiting shuttles.

“Daniela, you’re with me!” Troy yelled, too loud.

Daniel cursed under his breath as he forced his way to the other shuttle. Once inside it, he found a seat, stashed his bag under it and buckled up. From behind him, someone tapped his shoulder. It was Phil.

“We’re screwed, Daniel. Troy’s in command of this group.”

“Shut up, everyone!” someone yelled. It was not Troy, Daniel decided with a satisfied smile. That was destroyed a moment later, as Troy yelled out, through the P.A. system, that the one talking had to shut up as well. This was not going to be a great mission, even if it all went like clockwork.

Troy’s face appeared on a screen. “Listen up. I am in the cockpit with the pilot. I will be in constant contact with our people in the Hargha system as soon as we are in reach. I will also let you know when we are in range. And I will detail our plans as soon as things are clear.”

“I, I, I,” Daniel heard Phil say. “The idiot is quite full of himself.”

The take-off notice appeared. Seconds later the soldiers got kicked in the rear, as the shuttle shot out of the launch bay, sailing into the deep blackness of space. They were on the way to the Hargha system.

-=-=-

The flight to the Hargha system was fast. The two military shuttles had linked up once far away from the military base, and like that they had jumped into Faster Than Light-space.

Daniel had been studying the layout of the moon base they had to liberate and had decided on two possible points of entry and attack that would cause as little damage as possible to the laboratories.

A black Rebuilt had been watching Daniel as he was sitting next to him. “You did this more often, right?”

“Yes. I was an assault marshal,” Daniel said. “I’m Daniel.”

“Kjella. Assault marshal? No shit. And why are you not leading this thing then?” Kjella asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I am not experienced enough as a Rebuilt. Only in this game for a few weeks, and still in training.”

Kjella made a sound that clearly indicated his contempt. “Being like us has nothing to do with being able to lead a mission. I think someone went and got himself a brown arm.” He made a gesture as if he stuck his hand through a very tiny hole.

Daniel snorted.

A loud beep drew everyone’s attention to the screen, although they all knew what it means. Drop out of FTL in one minute. The men and women prepared themselves for the nauseating feeling that belonged to that part of the journey when on a shuttle. It never lasted long though.

As soon as they were in normal space again, the monitor showed the layout of the moon base. There were markings in three places. Troy’s voice came from the P.A., detailing how the attack would be staged.

“He has one place the same as you had,” Kjella said.

“Yes. Had.” Daniel shook his head at the plan on the screen. “It’s a kind of back-door. Good place to enter, but too far from the sensible places where you would expect hostages to be held.”

Kjella nodded. “You going to tell him?”

“Yes. At least I’ll try.” Daniel had little hope that he would get through to Troy.

The two shuttles detached from each other and quickly dove in the shadow of the moon that was their target. Troy came into the cabin and started assigning people to subgroups that would be in several stages of the attack.

“Troy, a word,” Daniel said as the man passed him.

“What? You want out?”

“No. Listen, this is serious. There are flaws in your plan, Troy. I’m an assault marshal, I can help you-”

“Shut up, Zacharias,” Troy snapped. “I’m in charge and we’re going in the way I said we would. I am not taking any crap from you. Assault marshal my ass.”

Daniel sighed. He had expected that. As Troy came back to the front, Daniel again tried to talk sense into the man, but the response was the same, only permeated with stronger language, and the promise of court martial if the assault marshal did not shut up. “And that’s a fucking order, Daniela!”

Troy disappeared into the cockpit again, slamming the door with unneeded force. Silence fell in the passenger cabin.

“You tried,” said Kjella. “I’m your witness.”

“So am I,” Phil said.

Troy’s voice came on again. This time he used the Rebuilts’ inner ear communication, even though there was no reason for it. He started detailing the plans for the group, as images on the monitor clarified his words.

Daniel kept shaking his head. There were serious beginner’s mistakes in the plan. This was not going well.

Even before all detailing was done, the shuttles set course for the moon base. Daniel hoped that their approach would at least be with the sun in their back, so the scopes on the base would hardly be able to pick the shuttles up on visual. Everyone reached into their bag and brought out the weaponry they had taken along.

“As soon as we are on the ground, we move out. You know your position and direction. Go there and report to me directly,” Troy notified everyone. At least he got that right. “And remember to fill up your compartments. We’re going out on inner air.”

All around was the sound of air pockets being filled. Daniel did that too. It felt strange, like breathing in through your arms and thighs, and not breathing out. He knew that, in worst case, a Rebuilt could survive for three hours on this air reserve. Hopefully it would not get that far.

There was a dull sound and a shiver ran through the shuttle. The hatch opened and the crew streamed out. Daniel noticed that they had indeed approached the moon base the right way.

“Troy, once again, change your plan. Please,” he said to their group commander as he jumped from the shuttle.

“Shut it, Zacharias.” Troy was not receptive to advice.

“If there is something like a God, please be merciful,” Daniel whispered. Then he ran off with his two companions, Andred and Wilson. Troy had assigned them to the back-door. “Phil, Kjella. Good luck,” he said on a private channel.

“You too, Daniel. We’ll get this done,” said Phil, who was assigned to the third group.

Daniel hoped it was the truth. He wondered what the best thing would be now. Go on and probably face disaster, or return to the shuttle and- no… that was not an option. He’d be committing mutiny and that would certainly cost him. He had no option but to follow his orders at this point and just do what he could to make things go as well as possible.

The three in Daniel’s group ran over the moon’s surface. It was a dull grey surface with very odd shapes protruding from the strange ground. It was not a solid foothold, it was more like running over moist sand, which was a very strange experience. Daniel had run outside the star base during his training weeks, also without external oxygen, but this was different.

They reached their target. Wilson, who was assigned to lead the group, reported to Troy that they were in position.

“Hold until I tell you to go in,” Troy ordered them.

The three prepared their weapons. Wilson kept his eye on the miniature display on his wrist, that informed him how the lock-decoder was progressing in opening the door’s safety-mechanism. The device only took seconds for that.

The waiting was torment for them. There was no word from Troy on what the other groups were doing, where they were, nothing. Suddenly they saw a flash and felt a tremble beneath their feet. The vacuum of space did not transport sound.

“Troy! What’s going on?” Daniel shouted on a private channel, overruling Wilson in role.

“Fuck, the fuck shot me!” was the reply.

“Troy, Phil, Kjella! Report! Do we go in?”

“Daniel, you’re out of line,” Wilson barked.

The ground beneath them shook again. More flashes of light erupted from several places in the roof of the moon base.

“Then do something,” Daniel said. “If you are in command, take it. All hell is breaking loose somewhere and we’re here picking our noses.”

Wilson yelled at Troy, asking what to do. Daniel did not wait for that. He kicked at the unlocked door, which flew open. He ran inside, staying low. Andred was right behind him, and Wilson followed last. “Troy doesn’t respond,” the leader said.

Daniel slammed the door and quickly punched in the military override for the airlock. Hissing air was blasted into the small compartment where the three men were waiting.

Once the air pressure was equalised, it took them agonising minutes to reach a smoke-filled corridor. They were getting closer to the battle that had started without them. On the private channel, Daniel kept repeating the names of the people that made up their strike team. As more and more responded, the three proceeded through the corridor. The screaming of phase-pistols and the low sound of more complicated proton weapons grew louder by the second, and suddenly they found themselves in the middle of the fight.

“Deck!” He did not know who yelled, but he was on the floor before the last letter had reached his awareness. Wilson and Andred also were on the floor as bolts flew over their heads.

“Back,” Wilson hissed, and he was right. In this situation there was nothing they could do except get hurt.

Once in the small corridor they had come through, Wilson took charge, finally, and located where their own people were. “They’re on our left. Bad guys right. Andred, you’re with me. Daniel, move around and hit them from behind.”

Andred and Daniel nodded. As Wilson and Andred kneeled down and started to fire their weapons around the corner, Daniel checked his own mini-display for the plan of the moon base. There was an easy way through some offices to get behind the attackers, so he retraced his steps and quickly found his way to where he wanted to go. All that time the sound of the battle followed him.

He reached the last door. “Wilson, I’m ready.”

“Go, Daniel,” was his reply.

5. Moon base (2)

Daniel carefully opened the door and glanced through the slit. The corridor seemed empty, most of the folks shooting at the military team were in a side corridor. Checking the entire corridor quickly, he slipped out of the office as once more the floor shook and trembled. Parts of the ceiling rained down on him as he made his way to the action. Just as he reached the turn in the corridor, a heavily armed figure came round it, his armour blackened from impacts of phase-pistols. A sound emerged from the person, who raised a large gun.

Daniel was faster, helped by his Bactine body. The armoured shape fell down, disabled for good. Daniel grabbed the weapon, which was much larger than his own, swung around the corner and took two seconds to evaluate what he saw.

The invaders had grouped at least two dozen scientists from the moon base behind them, to protect their backs. The scientists were standing, the invaders were either small or kneeling, to stay out of sight. How they had managed it so quickly, Daniel did not know, but the scientists were all tied together by the neck, with the chains ends high up in the wall so they could not escape or bend down. Two of the scientists were killed, being held up by the others, so they would not be strangled by the weight of the dead people hanging down.

He raised his hand and put a finger over his lips. Swiftly he moved forward, jumped, and yanked one end of the chain from the wall. Mere seconds later the other end was loose also. The freed people did not need encouragement: they ran off as fast as they could.

Daniel jumped up, almost reaching the ceiling, and buried the fingers of his free hand in the wall. That position gave him an open view on the attackers. He aimed the confiscated gun and fired at the front line of the invading force, taking out three of them in the first blast. As he had expected, several of them turned and started firing. They just aimed too low.

Andred appeared in the corridor also, and soon the invaders had been reduced to smoking bodies. The fight was over all of a sudden. The group that had been terminated turned out to be the whole invading group.

Troops began to locate hostages and freed the ones that had been locked up. The wounded were seen to.

Daniel found Troy, who was limping around and gloating at the success. “Are you satisfied now?” he asked the leader of the subgroup.

“Yeah. I am. The base is liberated. We did a great job.”

“Nine civilians dead, five soldiers dead. Sixteen people wounded. Yes. A great job.” Daniel wanted to punch Troy in his grinning face.

“Casualties are a risk in operations like this, Daniela,” the man said, stabbing Daniel in the chest with a finger. “If you can’t take that, find another job.”

“Operations,” Daniel fumed. “This was not an operation, you idiot. This was a simple hostage situation. You should have listened to me, then no-”

“Shut up!” Troy went from gloat to furious in an instant. “You couldn’t even protect a load of weapons against a handful of Qurgon pirates. Don’t you tell me about operations!” He pushed Daniel aside and limped off.

Daniel’s rage roared, then dropped away. Pain wrung his gut; pain of the memory, pain of the lives lost on this base. He bit away a few tears. This was not the place nor the time.

They held the moon base until local authorities had come to take over. Then the soldiers were loaded into the shuttles again and the journey home started. Daniel felt horrible; Phil and Kjella had been killed in the final blasts of the battle. Wilson had lost a hand. And Troy faked a limp.

-=-=-

“I did what I could, Daniel.” Burt sat down on the chair in the conference room. “I won’t make things pretty: I doubt it will make a difference. General Rudyer is very strict on protocol and following orders, and his word will make the verdict. Sorry.”

Daniel nodded.

On their return to the star base, Troy had filed a serious complaint against Daniel, for insubordination, leaving his designated station before notice and even endangering the lives of military personnel and civilians.

“I guess I should count on being thrown out, right?”

“Yes. Which is better than…” The trainer did not finish his words.

Wilma came in, bringing coffee. “Here. How was it?”

Burt filled her in. Wilma’s face grew dark. “That sucks. Troy made mistakes and Daniel has to take the fall because Troy hates his guts.”

“That sums it up. And he got Rudyer.”

“Damn it.” Wilma put a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Daniel shook his head. “You can’t help it. No one can. It can happen and it happened.” There were no people left alive that would stand up against Troy for him. That made things even more sour.

Two days later, Daniel and Troy were present in the office of General Rudyer. An official read out the verdict. Daniel was found guilty of endangering the mission on Hargha 9 and disobeying orders of the assigned leader. Troy had tried to make him responsible also for the death of some of the scientists, but that accusation had been rejected for of lack of proof. Daniel’s counters that Troy had failed to listen to Daniel’s experience as assault marshal had been brushed aside, which was hard to swallow. He had to, though, or suffocate on it.

“Daniel Zacharias, as this mission was called upon in haste, and you had not completed your training as an enhanced person yet, there are some mitigating circumstances. Therefore this is not an official court martial, although the rule will be binding. The ruling is that you will be taken from the R1 group and no longer will follow the training. You will be detained in your cabin until a new designation for your person is found. You are allowed to eat in the mess, provided you are accompanied by two people. You are free to mention two people, General Rudyer will decide if these are appropriate. Otherwise we will assign two people to you.”

Troy beamed. He had won. Pulling the string that was his uncle, who was married to the General’s sister, had helped.

“Daniel Zacharias, do you have any questions?”

Daniel looked at the woman next to him, who was supposed to be his legal representative. She stared at the floor, not paying attention to Daniel. He sighed. This was not going to get him more than this, he knew. At least he wasn’t kicked off base, or worse. “No, sir.”

“Thank you. That’s all. This session is dismissed.”

That was it. Simple, clean and fixed.

Troy got up and sauntered over to Daniel. His limp had miraculously disappeared. “I’m really sorry to witness this, Daniela,” he whispered as he leaned on the table. “This takes away most opportunities to have fun. But you see, justice was served. I get commended for doing a good job and you barely missed the brig.”

Daniel’s lawyer got up and walked away after picking up her things. She did not say a word.

“I hope you will have learnt something from this, Troy,” Daniel said. “I really do. But knowing you, that hope is in vain. Please, try not to kill too many people with your decisions.”

“Don’t worry, Zacharias. You seem to forget your place.” Troy stared Daniel in the eye, then walked off. Ludo was near, looking apologetically at Daniel for the last time. Then he walked off, following Troy.

-=-=-

“I heard they may have found something for you, Daniel.” Rhonda watched him eat. She was the one who had been agreed upon to accompany him. Burt was unacceptable, they had told him, as ‘trainer O’Shaughnessy has better things to do’. They just wanted to keep Daniel away from all things Rebuilt, he was convinced of that. The other person with them was Chin-Ho, a regular human who worked in the kitchen and deemed not dangerous.

“Oh?” Daniel was curious enough. He had been detained for a few weeks already and life was becoming so boring that he would have gladly gone out to rake the bare planetoid ground for a few hours a day. Rhonda had sources everywhere, he had noticed lately.

“Nothing definitive yet. But rumour has it that there is something like active duty in the works for you.” Rhonda spoke quietly so no one around would hear her. Using the built-in military band was prohibited when not on assignment, and also monitored when on base. “Less glamorous than star cruisers and stuff, also you’ll be mostly on your own.”

That sounded intriguing to Daniel. Not so much to Chin-Ho, who was trying very hard to finish his game of electro-go. “When did you hear that?” Daniel asked.

“This morning. I am-”

“Daniel Zacharias?” A soldier in full uniform stopped at the table.

“Yes,” Daniel admitted.

“Come with me.”

“Why? I haven’t finished eating yet.”

“I just have orders to bring you to Captain Chambers, sir. Now.” The soldier looked at Daniel. “I’m sorry about your food.”

Daniel shrugged. “Okay, I’ll come with you. Are you sure that you alone are capable of getting me there?” He winked at Rhonda who grinned.

“Yes, sir.” The soldier did not catch the joke.

Daniel got up and followed the soldier to the office of Captain Chambers.

“Zacharias. Sit down, please.” The captain was a friendly man, who came right to the point. “We have looked at your case, and decided that it is not possible to maintain your person here on base. Too much has happened. As you are well aware of?”

Daniel nodded. That was an indisputable fact.

“Good. We have found a request for security from a rather remote star system in NGC6637. I doubt you ever heard of that.”

“No, I haven’t.” Daniel knew a lot about the New General Catalogue of space objects, but most of the numbers and designations were lost on him.

“Thought so, yes.” The captain nodded and punched his keyboard for a while. “Tell me. Do you suffer from sea sickness?”

“I beg your pardon?” Daniel was stumped by that question.

“Sea sickness. You know, when you start throwing up when the floor waves under your feet.”

“No, I don’t think so, sir.”

“Right. You will be going there then. NGC6637. Don’t forget. Your cabin terminal will be granted access to everything we have on that place, you will be sent a memo on what is asked of us so you can prepare for this place.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The captain dismissed Daniel, but called his name as he was at the door. “Zacharias… I’m sorry about what happened. Really.”

Daniel just nodded. Then he left the office and was escorted back to his cabin which was closed and locked behind him. He hated that little part of the deal, it wasn’t that there was a place to run off to here.

He flipped on the terminal, took the screen from the wall and lay on the bed with it. “Let’s see where they want to ship me off to…” A small blinking symbol attracted his attention. He tapped it and was asked if he wanted to open a personal message. “Huh… who would… Hmm. Yes.”

“Note that this message has been checked. No modifications have been made to the original content,” the tablet told him.

“Hello, little soldier brother,” Malcolm’s voice said.

Daniel stabbed at the tablet, making the voice stop. All bloody Qurgon pirates on a deadman’s chest, he thought, what’s this? Almost feverishly he tried to think of a reason why Malcolm of all people would send him a message. A spoken one for that. He couldn’t think of one, so he punched the tablet to listen to the message.

“As usual it is difficult to get in touch with you. That is probably why nobody ever tries.” Malcolm had this uncanny ability to make people feel guilty by just saying things in a certain way. The bloody prick. “Things here are going well, of course. Belinda is doing well, and the children are growing up to be good and reliable people.”

“Damn you, dear brother.” Daniel’s mood dropped below zero with ease and practice.

“We got them a poodle. They work so well at their schools that Belinda told me we should get them a pet, and they wanted a poodle. I am not sending you a picture of the pooch. That costs too much.”

“Of course. You sit on your money, that is how you get your wealth.” Daniel snorted.

“I do want to praise you, soldier. You stayed on your post. Really, amazing. Not even a small note on our father’s fifth dying day.”

Daniel closed his eyes, groaning. He could kick himself. The family had agreed that each year, on father’s dying day, they would send notes to each other. He had totally missed it this year, as he had been on the mission that got interrupted by the Qurgon pirate ship. The fact that he had not been able to, even if he had thought about it, did not matter to him. He had forgotten it.

“I hope this little reminder is enough of an incentive for you, big brother,” Malcolm sneered. “Cynthia of course came to your defence, as she always does. Just thought you’d like to know.”

It took all of Daniel’s willpower not to fling the tablet against a wall.

6. Tailored

Daniel’s confinement had been ended. He was relatively free to move about on the star base, as long as he did not wear the uniform. He felt odd walking around in civilian clothes. He had to buy something more appropriate than his old vacation stuff. Colourful shorts and bright shirts were not helpful in keeping a low profile.

He spent a lot of time in the library where the big Spacenet hookups were. He put in an effort to learn as much about NGC6637 as he could. The heart of NGC6637 was a class V sun, in what on Earth was known as the Sagittarius zodiac sign. It was part of a binary star system, and the planet where he was going to be stationed was named: NGC 6637 — VIII. It was the 8th planet in system, and the people that lived there had not taken the trouble to actually name their planet something. They referred to it as ‘the planet’, if at all the subject came up.

The atmosphere of the planet was quite breathable, no problem for enhanced lungs, Daniel read. That was good. The people were very humanoid, slightly smaller on average than people from Earth. Also good. Something that surprised him was the fact that there was no air traffic on the planet. All transport was done by either ground carriages or boats and ships.

Daniel rubbed his forehead. “No air traffic? What on earth do they need security for then? Wonder if I can find something about border patrol. If that’s there, I’m quitting before I get on the job.” Then he recalled the remark of Captain Chambers, about sea sickness. Boats and ships. Right. That had to be the connection.

Spacenet provided no information, as usual. Daniel knew that there was too much information around, and cataloguing all that took a lot of time. And this was not something important for the majority of people searching stuff. He selected the last bit of information that was there about NGC6637-VIII: “Visitors to NGC6637-VIII are advised to observe the dress code.”

Daniel wondered if he should be worried.

Later that day, a package was delivered to his cabin. In it were microblots with more information about the planet. Someone, he thought, is going through a lot of trouble to prepare me for that place. It looks as if they are doing all they can to get rid of me.

They, whoever they were, also made it that Daniel did not get in touch with the other Rebuilts on the base. All, that was, except Rhonda Flower. Rhonda had too much leverage on high command, because of her work and skills. She could do everything she wanted, within certain limits.

They often sat in the Glass Dome, talking or reading about the things on NGC6637-VIII. There were bits and pieces about the language, the culture, social events that needed attention, the works..

“You are going to have a ball, Daniel,” Rhonda said as she reread a paragraph about formal dinner parties. “That is so you. Formal dinner parties.” She laughed and almost rolled from the low bench they sat on.

“Yeah, sure,” said Daniel, “I have figured out I will be doing something with boats there, so no formal stuff for me. And I will keep it that way.”

“If you have to dress up, you must send me a picture,” Rhonda grinned. “And I will come and have a look for myself then!”

Daniel grinned. “Oh yes. We can go out to a gala or the opera or so.”

“Hey, stop there. No opera, okay? I like light and funny stuff. It is still beyond me how someone on a stage can sing for half an hour after being stabbed in the gut by someone, before keeling over.”

Daniel stared at her, then grinned. He had never looked at opera that way.

“And then the next guy comes around,” Rhonda continued, “and sings for another half hour, instead of calling for a medic. No. Opera’s wasted on me.”

“That’s hard to miss,” Daniel said. “Okay. No opera for you.”

“Good,” Rhonda nodded.

Daniel put the reading tablet aside. “I’m going to miss you, Rhonda.”

“No. You’re not.”

The soldier looked at her. “What?”

Rhonda shook her head. “You are not allowed to miss me. Yes, we had a good time. Yes, we connected a few times and that was amazing. But I have my place here, and you have your place… out there on some planet in the black. Don’t miss me, Daniel. Be smart. Remain my friend. That’s best.”

Daniel watched Rhonda for a few moment. “Yes. That’s best. Friends.” They shook hands on it.

“Now, what more stuff do you have on there about NGC6637-VIII?”

They started looking up how people moved about there, and found a few pictures.

“You’ve got to be kidding…”

They stared at a carriage. It was black. Open. It had wheels with large spokes.

“Where’s the bloody horse?” Daniel wondered.

“No sticks at the front… wherever the front is. No place to put a horse. So no horse.” Rhonda shrugged. “What do I know.”

“Then how do these things go? Slave labour? I don’t recall seeing anything about that.” Daniel started going through the text. “Oh, wait. I have something here… NGC6637-VIII uses a technology that has not yet been unravelled. There is a form of energy in use that seems to power everything which needs it. Yet no evidence has yet been found that reveals the source of the energy. This is mainly caused by the lack of time spent on the planet.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of nothing.” Rhonda read the text for herself. “Really. Can’t make anything of it. No description of how that cart goes, nothing. You are going to have so much fun there, Daniel. Make sure you have good walking shoes!”

Daniel pressed a button. The page turned. He was silent for a moment. “Oh no.”

Rhonda took the tablet and looked. “Oh God.” She looked again. Then she looked at Daniel. Her laughter could be heard over half the base, Daniel would swear to that.

“This is wrong. This has to be wrong. No way that they dress like that over there, and I am not going to walk around in a penguin suit like that!” Daniel waved a finger at the tablet which did not care about that. “No no no. Not me.”

Rhonda contained her laughter and grabbed the tablet. “Dress regulations on NGC6637-VIII. The people are very strict in their clothing arrangements. Short-term visitors will be accepted in their traditional garments-”

“Oh good. That’s me,” Daniel said, relieved.

“-but for people who stay on the surface for longer than a week, it is compulsory to wear the proper attire.”

“I’m screwed,” Daniel understood. “I am terminally screwed.”

The image showed two gentlemen and two ladies. The men sported dark suits, resembling what people used to wear in the early 1900s on old Earth. One of them had even grown a large moustache under his nose. Daniel shuddered. The ladies wore wide, flowing dresses, in beautiful colours. One of them carried a small umbrella-

“Hey. Wait. What’s wrong in that picture?” he asked.

Rhonda, who had been looking at the dresses with growing disgust, frowned. “What do you mean?”

“There. That thing. Umbrella. Is that normal?”

Rhonda scrutinised the picture. “Dunno. I’m the wrong person to ask about women’s clothes, Daniel. You should find a more reliable source for that. Just be glad it’s the boys wearing suits and the girls wearing skirts. I once was on Ophelius. You’d really have to-” At that point she was interrupted by a beep-signal. “Damn. Emergencies coming in. I have to run, Daniel.” She jumped up and sped off.

Daniel watched her go and wondered what he would have to, on Ophelius. A blinking light in a corner took his attention away from Ophelius as well as the people in the picture. He opened the message.

“Orders and information for your imminent mission to NGC6637-VIII.

Mission: you are to assist the Ship Owners Society of NGC6637-VIII in securing their sea faring vessels. The Society has requested security assistance for their vessels, as pirates have been engaging their ships in battle and ‘captured crew and cargo, sinking the ships’.

Upon arrival at the planet, you are to report to Seigner Waldo Skinsh ko Talush who will inform you in more detail. You are under all circumstances obligated to adhere to local protocol.

Departure: you will be leaving on a shuttle from platform Delta 1 tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.

Others: Before being taken to NGC6637-VIII, you will stop at space station Red Eagle where your attire will be made to fit.”

Attire will be made to fit. These were the only words in the message that seriously loomed over Daniel. “Did I mention being screwed?” he asked the tablet. “Pirates. I hope they don’t expect me to go fight some bloody Captain Hook!”

7. NGC6637-VIII

Half an hour before his ride would come in Daniel sat on his small trunk with his things. A bag with extras lay on the ground next to him. Platform Delta 1 was deserted, which suited him fine, although he would have liked to see a few people before leaving.

There were footsteps. Daniel got up and looked, hoping to see Rhonda, or Burt. He was not happy when he saw the shape of the oncoming person.

“Daniela, girl!”

“Crap.”

“I knew you would be happy to see me!” Troy held out his arms, as if he expected Daniel to come running. “Ludo, come here and say goodbye to Daniela!”

The man stepped out of the tunnel. “Daniel.”

“Glarn!” The voice sounded like whip.

Troy spun around as if he had been stung by something. “Trainer O’Shaughnessy.”

Daniel breathed again. “Burt.”

“I would sincerely advise you to report to your commanding officer, Troy Glarn.” Burt stood next to Ludo, arms crossed over his chest.

Troy looked at Daniel, his eyes full of anger, but with Burt around he did not dare to say more. Witnesses were evil things. Without another word he turned and marched off into the tunnel. “Ludo!”

“Ludo stays here, it is you they are looking for,” Burt calmly said, holding Ludo back.

Troy looked even less pleased, then he walked on. Echoes of cursing came from the tunnel, painting a grin on Burt’s face. “He is going to have a really nice surprise,” the trainer said. “And you, Ludo, should stop being his dog. Troy is going off-base, so it is time that you make your own plans.”

“Off-base?” Ludo and Daniel asked at the same time.

“Yup. Since it sucks what stunt he pulled on you, I pulled one on him. I made a few calls and arranged for Troy to get his own command.”

“You what?!” Daniel could not believe his ears.

“Ever hear of Trados Noxos?” Everyone who had ever been further away from Earth than a light year knew something about Trados Noxos.

“The planet of shit?” Daniel asked, first in disbelief, then with an ever expanding smile. It wasn’t exactly a planet of shit, but the smell there made you believe that, according to the reports.

“He’s going to be there for a while,” Burt said with a wink.

“Hey, good, you’re still here!” That was Rhonda’s voice. The Head Medical Officer came sauntering through the tunnel. As she emerged, she hugged Burt and then Daniel. “Troy looked like he was kicked in the balls,” she remarked. “What was that for?”

Daniel told her what had happened. It made her grin.

His friends stayed with him until the shuttle had arrived and he had to leave. Burt shook his hand. So did Ludo. And Rhonda did that also. “Good luck, Daniel. Find a way to stay in touch, okay?”

Daniel nodded. “I have the standard transmitter here. It should work. Even there.” He picked up his trunk and bag and walked to the airlock that would lead him into the shuttle. Just before going through it he looked back. The three people stood watching him. Two were waving. He shouldered the door and quickly went through it.

-=-=-

“Sir, we are approaching our destination. I would like to go through the disembarkation procedure with you.”

“Eurhm?” Daniel woke up and looked into the face of the man whom he only knew as ‘the flight attendant’. After his business on space station Red Eagle, he had come aboard a spacecraft that was hardly worth the name. The few people aboard had assured him it was safe. He would have to take their word for it.

There was rather worn red carpet on the floor everywhere in the craft. He had a room in it. Not a cabin. It was a genuine room. There was a real bed with a cover that felt as if there was something non-synthetic in it. It was heavy. He discovered a real shower. There was a table with a cloth on it in a corner of the room, and flowers, and a few candles. A chair was there too, with its legs ending in what looked like animal paws. On the wall hung a large mirror with a thick brass frame; the frame looked like it was infested with grapevines.

At the moment the flight attendant had notified him, he had been dozing in the lounge of the spacecraft, something that would have looked perfect in a gentlemen’s club in ancient times on Earth.

The flight attendant smiled benignly at the space soldier who removed himself from the deep leather chair and fumbled with his tie. “If you’d allow me, sir.” With quick movements and a few pats, the man rearranged Daniel’s obligatory attire into something more or less acceptable.

Daniel suppressed the obligatory groan. This had happened every time he had gotten up, and he had so far not gotten it right. Three days on Red Eagle had not been enough. Three years would be better, but there was no time for that.

The flight attendant then explained the manner in which Daniel would be taken to the surface of the planet.

“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?” he asked after hearing the man out.

“I most certainly do not… kid… sir. If you would please follow me to the exit. The porter will bring your luggage.”

Daniel was taken to a small hall where four other men were waiting. There also was a woman. Gentlemen, he corrected himself. Gentlemen, and a lady. Dressed in the old fashioned things he and Rhonda had laughed about before.

The flight attendant showed Daniel to a brass handle. “Hold on to this, sir. You may find that the entry into the atmosphere can be rather disheartening, there is however no reason for alarm.”

“Thank you.” Daniel tested the grip. It felt solid. “I appreciate your service, sir.”

“The pleasure was entirely mine, sir, but I thank you.”

As the man left them, Daniel was certain that the flight attendant had had more than his share of fun over his fumbling with these clothes. His ponderings were broken up by a slight tremble of the floor.

“Oh my,” the lady said, reaching out and finding support on Daniel’s arm. “I do hope you don’t mind, sir.”

“That’s quite alright, ma… my lady.” Close call, just in time. To avoid further mishaps, he stared at the door that was the way out of this crate. A crate, he had to admit, that had held together pretty well. The door looked like it was lined with real wood. He shook his head. This was all a dream.

The dream shuddered once more, there was a hiss that made the lady grab hold of Daniel’s arm one more time and then there were footsteps outside the spacecraft. The door swung open and a man in a black uniform greeted them. “Welcome, dear lady, gentlemen. Please mind your step. Do let me lend you a hand, my lady…”

Moments later, Daniel found himself standing on a large platform, about sixty by forty feet. It also looked as if it was made of wood. There was a high fence-like railing around it from the same material. The uniformed man ushered them away from the spacecraft and waited for the porter to bring out the luggage. Then he closed its door.

Daniel watched it happen in disbelief. There he was, on some impossible platform wherever, a spacecraft hanging next to it, and people unloading as if they stepped out of a magnet train.

The uniformed man shoved a piece of the fencing to the side, so the spaceship’s door was no longer visible. “The gondola will be here any moment, I hope you will allow for some time.” A shudder ran through the platform as the spacecraft fired up some propulsion system and moved away from the platform. “No cause for alarm,” the man in black said, “the ship will not leave until we are well and safe aboard the gondola.”

Daniel took the man to the side. “Excuse me. I am new here.”

The man smiled. “Yes, sir, you are indeed.”

“Can you explain to me where we are and what we are waiting for?”

“Naturally, sir. We are at the embarkation platform. This is platform 1, it is the eldest of the twelve on the planet. We are at this moment twelve thousand feet over the surface of the planet. A gondola is on its ascent and will collect us once it arrives. The gondola, of course, will bring us to the surface safely.”

Daniel looked around over the fences. “Can you tell me what keeps this platform here?”

“Nothing, sir. Well, nothing in the way of support beams and such, I assume you are referring to that.”

“Right…”

“Anything else I can help you with, sir?”

“No. Thank you. This is enough for now.” The thought of being this high on a wooden platform that just hung there was something he was not prepared for. It gave him a feeling that he had not had in his entire space career.

The gondola, when it arrived, was another surprise. Not that he’d had any idea what it might look like, but he had not expected something that resembled a closed carriage.

The man in uniform opened another gate in the fence as there was a knock on it. “Good day, Bradnik,” he said to a man who came out of the carriage.

“Wishing you a good day, Fderroh,” said the man. He was impeccable in appearance. “Lady, gentlemen. My apologies for the delay. Your belongings will be loaded up speedily. If you would please board the gondola…”

Fderroh, in his black uniform, quickly worked to get the suitcases and trunks loaded into compartments of the carriage and then Bradnik came in again also. The carriage rocked slightly as he moved and took the seat marked ‘reserved’.

“Welcome aboard, esteemed guests. We will now commence the journey to the surface. Please sit back and enjoy the view. If you are not inclined to look outside, I have a few newspapers here for your entertainment. The very newspapers that caused the delay, I hasten to add.” He then pulled a few brass levers, kicked a pedal and sat back with a professional stare directed to the outside.

Chains rattled and after a slight jolt the gondola started downwards in a way that was so smooth that Daniel could not believe it. He was not really able to look outside as he was squeezed in between two of the gentlemen, so he opted for a newspaper. That was not a lucky choice either: he had no space at all to fold open the large sheets of paper. He ended up skimming the few headlines he could make out and silently praised the speed learning training he’d done to actually be able to read the language of this planet.

A bump announced the end of the ride. Everyone was helped out of the carriage by a young man who stood by, pointing out the two steps down and ‘take care not to trip’.

Daniel thanked him and stepped out on a round platform- no, this was not a platform. This was a circle, paved with cobblestones and sand. He resisted the urge to bend down and touch the floor. He got out of the way after assuring that his now three pieces of luggage were unloaded. The chest with his new clothes surpassed both other items together in size.

The smell of the place filled his nostrils. There was a strange scent in it, something he could not place. He blamed the Bactine implements for it and decided to ignore it as nobody seemed to be bothered by it. If, at all, they noticed it.

A sign told him he was standing on Embarcado Circle. All around the circle, people were walking, not paying attention to the affair with the gondola. Daniel also saw carriages of all kinds and shapes, occupied and empty, move around. They made no sound except for the wheels rattling on the street. Then he looked around for someone who might be able to help him.

Another young man, merely a rather grown up kid, walked up to him, as if waiting for this cue. “Sir? Are you looking for help?” He had a sign on the lapel of his coat, stating that his name was Mr. Benjin and he was an employee of the Airlift Enterprise.

“Yes, I am. I need someone to bring my luggage to this address…” Daniel fumbled a piece of paper from his pocket, checked that it was the right one and handed it to the boy.

“I can arrange that, sir, no problem, sir.” Mr. Benjin lifted a small wooden box with a round brass plaque on it. The plaque was severely scratched.

Daniel stared at the box, then at the boy, not making the connection for several long seconds. “Oh, crap,” it escaped from him. Well done, Daniel. Two minutes on the face of this planet and you already kick protocol in the balls, he told himself. He fumbled with the ring he was now wearing, aimed and tapped the ring’s green stone against the brass plaque. It would deduct a number of credits from some shady bank account he should have here.

“Thank you sir,” the boy said. “Is there anything else of your wishing?”

Daniel felt uncomfortable with all this sir stuff. He found another paper. “Yes. I need transportation to Seigner Waldo Skinsh ko Talush.” He hoped he pronounced the name correctly, which was doubtful given the puzzled expression of Mr. Benjin. “He is the president of the Ship Owner Society?”

The boy’s face lit up. “Of course, sir.” To Daniel it almost sounded like ‘learn to pronounce our language, idiot.’ The young man, dressed in a shrunken version of the suits Daniel saw all around, asked him to follow.

8. The mission

Mr. Benjin guided Daniel over one of the many pathways that were cutting through the meticulously maintained lawn that lay around the Embarcado Circle. At the end of the path was a funny looking building, a mix of a tent and a waiting room. Inside were benches with cushions, tables with refreshments and a friendly young lady who was delighted to assist Daniel.

“Welcome to our planet, Seigner, and to the town of Skarak,” she said. “I see you need some assistance to find your way in our town. Let me help you with this.” She led Daniel outside again, after offering him some tea which he gladly accepted.

After drinking his tea, he followed her to one of the carriages that were waiting outside the tent. The young woman, who had introduced herself as Miss Ridding, explained that Daniel only had to sit down in an available carriage (“preferably one that is at the front, for easier departure, sir”) and tell the carriage where he wanted to go.

“If you have a hydger, you can simply bring up the location and hold it in front of this copper plate,” Miss Ridding said.

“A what?” Daniel did not remember reading or hearing about something called a hydger.

“You will probably get one soon, sir, do not worry. If you have no hydger, you just touch the copper plate and state the number that makes for the location where you want to go.” Miss Ridding pointed at the row of numbers on Daniel’s paper, beneath the name of the president of the Ship Owners Society. “Also hold your ring in front of the plate, to identify yourself. If the fare is pre-arranged no credit will be subtracted. Will you be well with this, sir, or would you require someone to escort you?”

“I will give this a try, Miss Ridding. Thank you. Is there a fail-safe system, or an emergency call in this carriage, in case things go wrong?”

Miss Ridding smiled at the ignorance of this tall man and his somewhat crumpled appearance. “What could possibly go wrong, Seigner? If you feel uncomfortable during the voyage, just touch the copper plate and tell the carriage to take you home. It will then bring you back here.”

“Thank you. Miss Ridding. You are very kind.”

“It is my work to assist people, sir. Have a pleasant stay.” Miss Ridding smiled and nodded, then stepped back. She waited until Daniel had climbed into the carriage, touched the plate, recited the numbers and the carriage pulled away.

Daniel watched out the windows left and right as the carriage took him through the streets. Most of what he saw matched the things he had seen in the videos and pictures. He marvelled at the buildings and statues and gardens, grinned about the people who were walking around.

The carriage came to a halt in front of a building that had the shape of a boat. The carriage door opened, as a sign that the tour had ended. Daniel stepped out and walked up to the gate. It was closed. And remained closed. Behind him the carriage drove off. “And now…” Daniel wondered. He noticed a scratched brass plaque. On a hunch he held his ring against it. The gate swung open, allowing him access to the short greystone path that led up to the door of the building. “Swell. I’m really getting the hang of this.” At the door to the building he looked for another brass plate. In vain. “So…”

The door opened. A man in a black suit, wearing a frivolous crème coloured shirt and a deep red tie, said: “May I help you?”

Daniel introduced himself. He needed the paper with the name again and carefully added ‘president of the Ship Owners Society’ again.

“Oh, absolutely, sir. We are awaiting you. My name is Varning. Would you please follow…”

Mr. Varning led Daniel up some majestic stairs and into a corridor that had a carpet thick enough to lose something in. There were paintings on the walls left and right, and lights burnt in small chandeliers everywhere. They stopped at a door, Varning knocked and proceeded inside without waiting.

“Seigner Skinsh ko Talush, sir Daniel Zacharias.”

Daniel noticed that he was not a Seigner here, merely a sir. Not something he hated.

From behind a large dark desk that looked like it was made of wood of course, a lean man with grey hair and piercing blue eyes stepped to Daniel, extending a hand. “Welcome, Mr. Zacharias. How was your voyage? I am pleased that you came here speedily. Would you care for some tea perhaps, or another refreshment? Varning, some tea for Mr. Zacharias please.”

“Certainly, Seigner,” Mr. Varning smiled and with a correct bow he left the room.

Seigner Skinsh ko Talush offered Daniel a seat and detailed the problems that the Society was facing concerning the increased number of pirate attacks on their ships. “It has become a real problem, Mr. Zacharias,” Waldo Skinsh ko Talush said. “That is why we have asked for support from outside. Our people are past their wits and we see no way to stop the pirates. There has been a lottery to decide on who’s ship you will be sailing first. The lucky person is the honourable Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem. You will meet him shortly, and he will inform you of the specific details. Do you have any questions so far, sir?”

Daniel asked about weaponry and defence systems that were allowed aboard the ships, but the answer to that was rather vague. This did not appear to be Seigner Skinsh’s forte.

There was a knock on the door and Mr. Varning entered, announcing the arrival of Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem. Behind him was a man of average height, blond-grey hair and blue eyes, but unlike those of the president of the Society. His clothing was immaculate, almost too perfect to be real.

After formal introductions, Clelem said: “Mr. Zacharias, you will be sailing on my ship, the Pricosine. My serving man, Mr. Slindris, will show you where it is once you have settled in. Until that time I will see to it that the skipper, Mr. Ulaman Xhylor, will be notified of your arrival. The Pricosine is in harbour at the moment, so that is a convenient coincidence.”

Clelem struck Daniel as a nice man. Very strict and formal, but he had an open and honest appearance. “Thank you, Seigner,” Daniel said, “I hope I will be able to do some good for your ship.”

Clelem smiled. It was the smile of a man who was willing to forgive mistakes. “Very well. I trust that Seigner Skinsh will have a hydger for you, so communication and finding your way around will be simplified.”

Daniel was not sure what to say to that, as this was the second time this mysterious ‘hydger’ came up and he had not clue what it was. He just looked at the president of the Society, who nodded and reached behind him. From a side table he picked up a small box and handed that to Daniel.

“There is a leaflet with the device that explains its workings, Mr. Zacharias,” Seigner Skinsh said, being aware that Daniel might not know what to do with it. “If you care to examine the package, Varning will be able to elaborate on any issues you may encounter.”

Varning had been waiting by the door. He looked at Daniel as he opened the door. “Sir?”

Daniel thanked his hosts and left the large office. Varning came right behind him and took him to a small meeting room.

“The hydger,” he started as Daniel unpacked the box, “is the communication device we use on the planet. It can hold addresses of the people you contact frequently and it can also hold coordinates for their houses if they allow you to store them.”

Basically it was like a telephone and a navigational system in one, Daniel discovered. It could also be used to send house coordinates to a carriage, which saved the trouble of papers and reading out the numbers. “Does everyone have a hydger?” he asked.

“The people that matter do, sir,” Varning said with a smile. He then showed Daniel how to enter the coordinates to the place where he would be living, and how to summon a carriage, using the hydger.

Daniel thanked him and then was cordially escorted out of the building. Once in the street he took the strange book-shaped contraption, pressed the on-button and waited for the glossy display to light up. He chuckled at the weird technological thing he held in his hand and called for a carriage.

-=-=-

The carriage pulled up at the foot of a tremendously high building. It looked completely wrong here, as all the buildings he had seen so far had not gone higher than three or four floors. This thing was gigantic, he could not see where it ended. It had to be at least thirty storeys high. Still, this was the address, according to the coordinates.

Inside he found elevators, much to what he had expected on this planet. A box with a fence, being hoisted up on what probably were chains of some sort. His hydger did not make the thing move. His ring did.

The ride upwards was not as long as he had expected. The elevator let him out on a floor with a long unadorned corridor. The floor was made of a kind of stone, as were the walls, and the doors left and right were made of sturdy steel for a change. He found his room and to his relief also his gear. The boy at the Embarcado Circle had done well.

The apartment was simple but clean. Just the way Daniel liked it. He took off some of the more unpleasant clothes and then stood in front of the window, taking in the view. He was seriously high up for measures on this planet. Then he started unpacking, wondering if it would be terribly impolite to change into normal clothes.

9. The Pricosine

The next morning Daniel heard a bell ring. He wondered what was going on as it rang again, accompanied by a modest knock on the door. That clarified things.

Outside his apartment stood a man, small even to NGC6637-VIII standards. “Mr. Daniel Zacharias?” he asked, lifting his hat. The man was dressed in a brown suit, a blue tie covering part of his white shirt.

“Indeed. That’s me,” Daniel nodded.

“Good. My name is Gaguran Slindris. Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem’s serving man.”

“Oh, right, I’ve been expecting you. Won’t you come in?” Daniel stepped to the side.

“I would prefer it if you could step out, sir. I am here to take you to the harbour and introduce you to the captain of the Pricosine, Mr. Xhylor.”

“Oh. Certainly.” Daniel fetched his coat, made sure his ring and hydger were where he wanted them to be and followed Gaguran Slindris down the hall after locking the door. In relative silence the elevator brought them to the ground floor, where a carriage was waiting for them. Gaguran asked Daniel to take his hydger and then read out the coordinate address for the harbour. “You will be going there rather frequently, so it would serve you to store these numbers,” he said. Daniel then operated the hydger and the brass plate to make the carriage go.

As they were travelling, Daniel tried to strike up a conversation. Gaguran however seemed to want to keep to himself, so the newly appointed security man satisfied himself by watching the changing scenery outside the coach.

The strange smell Daniel had noticed as he arrived on the planet was slowly getting stronger. He had to ask Gaguran about it.

“What you smell, Mr. Zacharias, is the water. We hardly notice it anymore, but people who are not from here… they do. You will get used to it. The smell is a result of chemicals in the water. Captain Xhylor will tell you all about this, and the ships that sail in it.” He adequately cut off any of Daniel’s questions that way.

The carriage stopped. They were at the harbour. After leaving their transportation they walked onto the shipyard, using a small gate that was away from the main entrance. The main entrance, Daniel saw, was an extremely crowded place where carts, open carriage and many people carrying things were streaming in and out.

Gaguran kept to the side, where the buildings were. Offices and warehouses lined up the long route they were walking along. Daniel gaped at the multitude of ships and the shapes they came in. It also struck him that they were all sailing ships. Very odd.

“The Pricosine is too large to be moored in this area,” Gaguran announced voluntarily. “About ten more minutes, Mr. Zacharias. I assume you can keep up with me.”

Daniel did not want to laugh. He had to slow down his sauntering, otherwise he would be pacing away from the short man within seconds. “I’ll be fine, Mr. Slindris, do not worry or slow down on my behalf.”

Gaguran unleashed a barely noticeable nod and they continued. After a last turn, they had arrived. Three ships were tied to the quay with monstrous cable.

Daniel stopped and stared. “Holy crap.” The ships were not mere ships, they were floating villages. The last ship on the ropes was the Pricosine, its name blinked in the sunlight. It sported eight masts and was high as a mountain.

Gaguran stopped also and nodded approvingly at Daniel’s surprise. “Indeed, although I would appreciate if you were to watch your language somewhat, Mr. Zacharias. I am certain the lowly sailor folk would appreciate that expression, but I doubt you want to be counted among their ranks.”

They walked up to the gangway of the ship. It was laid out in a slalom kind of way and proved to be quite the climb before they reached the top. Daniel almost felt pity for the small man. Gaguran needed two stops to catch his breath, but he made it to the top without assistance or complaints. It was clear to Daniel though, that the man preferred to watch the ship from far away.

The deck was an enormous space, as Daniel had already expected. As they crossed it, to reach the stairs that led up to a high building on the ship, he also noticed that the people who were aboard all ignored Gaguran. Not the best of friends, obviously.

They reached the top of the stairs and from there stepped on a platform that circled a room on top of the high-rise. The view from there was spectacular. Daniel was almost able to oversee the entire harbour, which was a considerable feat. Gaguran did not have time for that though, he pushed on into the room. It turned out to be the bridge of the ship.

“Captain Xhylor,” said Gaguran.

On the sound of Gaguran’s voice a bear-shaped man rose up from a table. He was almost as tall as Daniel. His black hair was cut short and he wore sturdy grey clothes. A suit, Daniel thought, would look ridiculous on this man.

“Mr. Slindris,” the bear roared, “welcome aboard. How are you? And how is the Seigner?”

“Enough of that, captain,” said Gaguran. “This is the security agent we have discussed. Mr. Zacharias.”

The bear approached them and held out a hand that ought to be registered as a lethal weapon. “Ulaman Xhylor. Captain of the Pricosine.”

“Daniel Zacharias.”

The handshake was formidable. The captain grinned. This man was worth a good handshake. “Welcome aboard, Seigner Zacharias.”

“Daniel will suffice, Captain Xhylor.”

“Great. I am sure we’ll get along well. Call me Ulaman. Mr. Slindris, I thank you for escorting the man up here. You must be busy.”

Daniel turned to a window and grinned at the way the captain was sending the serving man on his way.

Gaguran Slindris did not mind the hint, though. He did not like being on the ship, so he said his goodbyes and proceeded the journey back to the street where he would call for a carriage again.

Daniel immediately felt at home with the big sailor. Ulaman called for his wife, Xandree and introduced them. Then he gave Daniel the grand tour of the ship, which took just about the rest of the day. The knowledge Ulaman had of the ship was scary. Daniel was shown to a cabin he could call his and was also introduced to the crew, which was just a handful of people.

Daniel was surprised to find that the cook was a woman, the only other female on the ship, together with Ulaman’s wife. Draiky Trelodah was, to be honest, not the kind of woman that would get in trouble quickly. Her posture made it clear that she would start it, though.

The fact that he had taken off his coat and jacket, rolled up his sleeves and also that he did not wear a hat was definitely in his favour. He was invited to share a meal with them, which he gladly accepted. As the crew was eating, Ulaman told Daniel that he should be present the next day before noon.

“We’re sailing around the mid-day hour, when the tide is there to help us out,” the big man said. “It’s not a big run we make, the cargo is not very precious, but we’re one of the few that can carry the load.”

“I’ll be here, Ulaman. No problem. I am looking forward to learning more about this world, so if you have time, I am all ears.”

“Harumpf. I need you to be all ears, Daniel. That is what you are here for. Ears and brains.”

The crew waited for Daniel’s surprised face before they all laughed. He knew then that he would fit in with that gang.

-=-=-

Daniel was up early and packed some normal clothes in his bag. They would do on board. He picked up his special case also and made his way to the harbour. For that trip he had dressed in one of the suits. The previous day had shown him that the citizens of Skarak did pay attention to how he was dressed, the more as his appearance was quite off already, with his Bactine skin and his size. The people here were accepting foreigners, yes, as long as they followed the etiquette.

Daniel wondered how long it would take him to walk to the harbour. His training as a soldier and his Bactine body would certainly come in useful, but the clothes proved to be the restricting factor. He called for a carriage.

Once he reached the Pricosine, he quickly stowed his gear away and changed into something a lot more comfortable. He had talked about that with Ulaman who was all in favour of Daniel being comfortable.

Daniel walked out on the deck of the giant ship.

“Good morning!” The voice came from high up.

Daniel looked up and saw someone wave. He waved back. “Good morning, Stroro!”

Stroro Ettekos was one of the sailors. The man stood in the rigging halfway up the fourth mast and was obviously on his way up. Daniel wondered about the man’s eyesight. He had to be related to hawks or their counterpart on NGC6637-VIII.

As he was looking around where he could climb up also, he heard his name again, this time from behind. “Hello, Bilk.”

Bilk was a strange character. He only went by Bilk. He was not from the planet, but lived here since long and had done nothing but sail the boats for Clelem Dandra ko Galem. If that wasn’t a sign of a good employer, nothing was.

“You are early,” said Bilk. “Ulaman is still at the house of the Seigner, for last information. He asked me to help you if you need something.”

“That’s wonderful. Thank you. Can you tell me what the cargo is?”

“We are moving soil today.”

“Soil. Like ground. Dirt.” Daniel frowned.

“Indeed. There is an island that has been damaged by a storm several weeks ago, and we are bringing them soil to rebuild a part of their island.”

“I see.” Daniel frowned. “How important is soil on this planet?”

“Not very important. Unless your island is in need of some,” Bilk shrugged.

There was no arguing with that.

Ulaman returned not much later, and as everything was in place, the Pricosine was prepared for departure. Daniel was on the bridge with Ulaman and Lidrin Starhouse, who was the ship’s navigator and best hand for the steering wheel.

Daniel’s hydger rattled, making him jump. It had not done that before.

Ulaman and Lidrin laughed as he grabbed for the book-device, opened it and found the switch to answer what turned out to be an incoming call.

The face of Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem appeared on the small screen. “Mr. Zacharias. I take it you are on your way to the Pricosine?”

“Good morning, Seigner Dandra,” said Daniel. “I am already on board, sir.”

Clelem’s face twisted a bit. Daniel was not sure if that was because of the reception of this device, or if the man took offence to how Daniel had butchered his name. He looked at Ulaman, who was shaking his head. Damn. It was the name-bit.

“Admirable, Mr. Zacharias. I trust that you will be doing well. I hope you understand that you will be out of hydger-range for most of the journey, so if anything happens, the crew and the ship will rely on your ingenuity and resources.”

“Thank you for informing me, Seigner Dandra ko Galem,” Daniel tried to make up. “I will do all that is in my powers.”

“Very good. I will hear from you again upon return. Safe sailing, Mr. Zacharias.”

“Good day, Seig-” The connection was ended before Daniel was done. He looked at Ulaman. “Bad move?”

“Bad move,” the captain confirmed. “He’ll live. And so will you. Come here, Daniel, we are about to sail.”

Daniel witnessed how the small-sails on the front mast were hoisted, and the large aft-sail was brought up halfway. Slowly, as the expertly-set sails caught wind, the giant ship drifted away from the quay as large unseen machines rolled in the large hawsers that had held the vessel tied to shore.

The few people that manned the boat used something that resembled a primitive bicycle to quickly go from one side of the boat to the other. Daniel was astounded at the speed they developed with the thing.

As if the ship was pestering everyone, it turned only ever so slow before the bow was pointing towards the exit of the harbour.

Ulaman kept yelling commands into a tube, occasionally rang a bell and seemed to enjoy the whole thing tremendously.

After a while, more sails were set. The Pricosine picked up speed, helped by the outgoing tide, and then they were outside.

10. Sailing

Sailing was a new experience for Daniel. He had never been out on the water before, and to be on such an enormous ship was totally new for him as well. As there was not much for him to do, he had conferred with Ulaman about helping the crew with chores. Ulaman was glad that Daniel offered that. Every little bit helped, after all, and there were always small things that were left undone because of the large amount of big things that needed doing.

Daniel learnt a lot about the ship and the way of sailing. He even was allowed, under supervision of Stroro, to climb all the way up in the rigging. Supervision of Stroro also meant that Daniel had to use safety-hooks to secure himself. He was not allowed, Stroro said, to fall down on the deck and kill himself, because that would make a mess. As Daniel proposed to just fall in the water instead, Stroro advised against that. “You’ll fall to your death just as easily from this height. You don’t seem to know how hard water is.” The former soldier did not know, indeed, but he trusted Stroro’s words. So he used the hooks.

They had been at sea for a few days already, when Darigyn asked Daniel if he could help. Darigyn was a big strong man, bald, covered in tattoos and skin like weathered leather. “There’s some rigging that needs fixing, maybe you want to try,” the sailor said. Daniel was game. Everything was new.

The two sat in the shade of one of the masts and Daniel tried to do what Darigyn did. It looked simple but was quite a tricky task.

“What is this material?” Daniel asked. The ropes that made the rigging was no ordinary rope. He had seen and felt that.

“This is Aramid,” Darigyn explained. “That is also what the sails are made of. Very strong, durable. Hard to break.”

“And hard to fix when it’s broken,” Daniel added.

Darigyn nodded as his hands moved on to the next piece that needed patching up.

“And what stuff is the boat made of? I have read that old Earth clippers were made of wood, but this is no wood. And it’s not metal either.”

“Ship. Not boat. The Pricosine is a ship. Okay?”

Oops. “Okay. What stuff is this ship made of, then?” Daniel had no idea that the difference between boats and ships was so sensitive with the people that worked on them.

Darigyn nodded. “It’s called Polychlon. Fake wood, some people say. Wood and metal do not live long in this water. Polychlon does.”

“Wood and metal?” Daniel frowned. “Why’s that?” It now occurred to him that he had not seen any metal on the ship, indeed.

Darigyn shrugged, which meant that a lot of body mass was moving. “I don’t know, I just sail here. It’s something with chemistry in the water and things like that.”

Daniel could not blame the sailor for that. It was not his job to know and explain about chemistry. Later that day he repaired to the bridge and found Ulaman there, staring at the maps of the sea strait they were traversing.

“Hello, Daniel,” Ulaman said, looking up for a moment. “How was the repair work?”

“Harder than I had expected,” Daniel admitted. “But we got a good deal done. Darigyn put a claim on me for the next time.”

Lindris, at the steering wheel, laughed. “You have a friend for life, Daniel.”

“How are your hands?” the captain asked.

“No problem, they’re fine.” Daniel told Ulaman about the surgery he’d had.

“Oh. I see. You’re different then. Well, that’s fine. We have Bilk also, and he’s fine. We’re all fine,” the captain said. He reached for the tube and yelled that the crew should set a gaff rigged sail on masts two, three and six, working sail on the seven and eight, and no sail on the rest. “We’re going too fast.”

Daniel stared at the paper. He was not new to navigational maps and understood most of what he saw, except for where Ulaman had added some notes by hand. “Too fast for what? Isn’t getting there fast good?”

The captain looked at him and laughed. “Almost correct, landlubber. First objective however is to get there. Look here.” The big finger pointed at a mark the captain had drawn himself just before. “This is where we are.” The finger moved and ended on top of a blotch. “That is where we are going. Did you notice something special?”

“You moved your finger between these two blotches.”

“Correct. These blotches are island. Rocks. There is a sandbank between them, and if we hit that with the low tide, we get stuck, damage the ship and we’re buggered up.” Ulaman tapped the mark that was the Pricosine. “We’re making too much speed, so we would hit the sandbank on the last bit of low tide. What we have to do is slow down enough so we pass through the islands a few hours later. That’s all.”

Daniel nodded. It made a lot of sense, once you knew what to look for. He had another look at the map. “Ah, right. I see why you’re not taking the detour around the islands.” He had seen the array of dots that lay around both islands, they probably meant spikes that were sticking up. No way the Pricosine could pass through that without tearing up the hull.

“Daniel Zacharias, you amaze me. You may make a decent sailor yet if you stay on board for a few years.” Ulaman laughed, pulled open a drawer from the table and brought out two glasses and a bottle with something blue. He poured two healthy dollops and handed a glass to Daniel. “I like you, Daniel Zacharias!”

They threw the booze back. Ulaman wiped his mouth. Daniel was not sure if he should try to make it outside before exploding. The fire died away fast though. Slowly Daniel put the glass down.

“Damn the water ghost,” Ulaman said, “you drank it all?”

Daniel nodded, not sure if his vocal chords had survived the ordeal. “Looks like it,” he tried. His voice was still there.

“You are such an idiot, Daniel Zacharias. But a good one. Next time ask what’s in it.” Ulaman laughed again, and Lidrin joined in. Even Daniel launched a grin.

The action of setting less sail had worked perfectly. Daniel stood all the way at the front of the Pricosine, the wind in his face, as the ship sailed through the gulley between the two islands. It was a magnificent view. Majestic.

The rest of the journey the Pricosine pushed on under light sail, making the most of the wind. As they approached their goal, all sails were lowered. Ulaman and the crew were masters of their trade, Daniel saw. They knew exactly when to do it, to make the giant ship slow down. The bow cut through the water for half a day, and by the time the speed had dropped to a near crawl, they were only a few miles away from the island. At the end of the day, the Pricosine was moored to a makeshift quay and several large cranes, all hand-powered, started their work on emptying the belly of the sea giant. It took four whole days of continuous work before it was done.

As they were on the journey back to Skarak harbour, Daniel sighted a few ships, far away. Ulaman had offered him a telescope, but his electronic eye outperformed the tube many times. Still he could not make out anything of the ships passing, but at this distance there was nothing to fear. The trip was calm and fast as now the Pricosine was empty and wanted to fly through the waters.

As soon as they were in reach, Daniel contacted Seigner Clelem, reporting about the trip, the two distant ships and the lack of something more to report. Clelem seemed satisfied.

Back in the harbour, Ulaman was met by Gaguran Slindris and the two left in a carriage. Xandree, Ulaman’s wife, knew that they were meeting Seigner Clelem. “They usually talk after a voyage,” she said, “although it is strange that they do after this. This voyage was nothing special.”

“Except for me being with you,” Daniel pointed out.

“Should not make the difference,” Xandree shrugged. “Care to come help with the laundry?” She was so practical.

Daniel was helping Darigyn roll the cordage into neat coils when Ulaman returned to the ship. The captain stomped up the gangway. “Not good,” Darigyn predicted. Daniel wisely did not ask anything as the bear-shaped man made his way over the deck and down to his quarters.

The security man was in his cabin, after a shower, when someone pounded on the door. “Hey, landlubber, do you have plans for the evening?” It was the voice of the captain.

“No, not really,” Daniel said as he opened the door.

“Perfect. You’re coming with us then. Xandree and I are going into town, for a hearty meal and some light entertainment.” The deep rolling laughter of the man told Daniel enough.

11. Home is where the ship is

Daniel had some time to himself after returning from the voyage. The Pricosine was being cleaned and then a new cargo would be loaded. That would take a while, of course, with such a large ship. He grinned at himself as he was taking care not to call it a boat any more.

He sat at his table near the window. It allowed for a great view over the harbour. He could see the Pricosine from there and never failed to have at least a glance.

The hydger was on the table, next to the newspaper of a few days ago. And his military radio. He had tried to contact Rhonda, but there was no reply. He wasn’t even sure if his transmitter was able to reach that far, but there was no harm in trying.

From the apartment below there was a bit of noise, some shouting and screaming. Then the door slammed. He had heard more of that and it annoyed him. There was hardly any silence in this building. It was truly built for immigrants and travellers that did not stay long. Why on Earth- well, on NGC6637-VII someone had thought this was a cool place was beyond Daniel.

Daniel longed for the peace he’d had aboard the ship. He had even called Ulaman and asked if he could sleep in the cabin, but that was a big no. Seigner Clelem did not allow people on board while the ship was being maintained. And Seigner Clelem was the God of the Pricosine, so his word was law.

A look around the small apartment did not fill Daniel with joy. He had just cleaned it, made the simple bed and there was a small trash bag waiting to be taken out. He looked at his wrist, a habit that was hard to kick. His watch was in a trunk somewhere. He grabbed the pocket watch that was so fashionable here and checked the time. Almost dinnertime. What more reason did one need to dress up in the suit again, he grumbled. He did it anyway.

All dolled up he made his way down. With the trash. The bag was unceremoniously dumped in the container designated for waste disposal, and he stepped out into the street. He took the hydger. Then thought. And slipped the device back in his pocket.

At ease he started his stroll along the street, mingling with the people there were on their way to all kinds of destinations. At the end of the street he stopped. Not because it was busy, but because something caught his eye. He was standing at a small, virtually deserted roundabout. IN its centre was a patch of lawn, and scattered through the grass were small spots where someone had planted flowers. Daniel stared at the arrangement. He knew he had seen things like this before, here on the planet, but until now he had not taken the time to actually notice them. And to his surprise he found that he liked it, appreciated it.

“It is pretty, isn’t it?” a lady said as she walked past him. Daniel looked at her and caught her smile just before she rounded the corner and walked on.

After a short walk Daniel had left the area where all the high building were. He sauntered through a street with respectable establishments. They were all restaurants to him, and he picked one that looked the least fancy. That would be safest in price.

The restaurant, called ‘the Mighty Oxen’, was quiet. A waiter showed him to a table, handed him a menu and walked off with an order for some tea. Daniel was getting used to drinking tea by now. There was no coffee, and the other beverages here probably required being born here to appreciate them.

His food was served quickly and looked good. It tasted good also. Daniel was not in the mood to discover what it actually was made of. That was a challenge for other days. As he was watching some of the other people in the restaurant, suddenly his hydger started rattling. He almost jumped up because of the unexpected sound and prepared for being thrown out for that noise, but nobody seemed to mind.

Daniel quickly picked the small box from his pocket and opened it. At least that would shut the noise off. There was a message on the screen for incoming communication from Mr. Tomlin Barker.

“Tomlin Barker?” Daniel’s jaw was about to drop. He flicked the switch.

The face of a man appeared on the small screen.

The waiter walked up to Daniel’s table and placed a screen around it, so the conversation would not be heard through the entire restaurant.

“Daniel Zacharias. I’ll be damned,” the man spoke from the box. “What in the name of everything that’s unholy are you doing here?”

“Tomlin? Is that really you?” Daniel could not believe his eyes as he looked at the face of his old friend and former partner in crime.

Tomlin Barker had been in the military also. He had served with Daniel for several years, but when he had gotten into some unenjoyable differences of opinion with the “high management”, he had resigned. The two men had kept contact for a few more months, until Tomlin had suddenly vanished.

“It’s me, bud, alive and kicking.”

Daniel stared at the tanned face and the shoulder-length brown hair. “Christ, I would not have recognised you. What are you doing here? And how did you find me?”

Tomlin grinned. “Let’s talk about that somewhere in person. Where are you?”

Daniel told him. Tomlin said he could be in Skarak within an hour and suggested a club where they could meet. “Enjoy your dinner, Daniel, I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

The display faded to its normal grey and Daniel closed the box. “Tomlin Barker. This is insane.”

An hour later, Daniel strolled through the avenue of Loda ko Ubris, looking for the club called Brostil Faring. He found it behind a large fence that was covered with purple plants. Inside, he was greeted by a lady who nodded as he said Tomlin’s name. She led him through a room with large empty sofas and a small crowded bar, guided him into a small hallway and directed him to the door of a private meeting room. “Your party is in there, sir,” the lady said. With a slight curtsey she left him. Daniel knocked on the door.

“Come in, you bloody space cadet!”

The meeting was one of long lost friends. Daniel learnt that Tomlin had first moved back to Earth for half a year. From there he had enrolled in a program to visit and explore new planets, with lots of own initiative. He had gotten to NGC6637-VIII, met a nice girl here and got married. He worked as an engineer now, designing pumps and pressure kettles for factories.

“I admit, it is not the most exciting kind of life,” the broad shouldered man said, “but I love my wife and kids, life here has been very kind to me, and I found that I had all I needed to settle down.”

“And become a good husband,” Daniel added with a grin.

“I hope so. Nadinka has not thrown me out yet, so I must be doing something right,” his friend laughed.

Daniel then told Tomlin about his life and the reason for his deployment to NGC6637-VIII.

Tomlin nodded as he heard about the Bactine surgery. “You always were a better soldier than I was, Daniel. I’m not surprised they patched you up. Already wondered about your strange colour as you came in.”

“So why didn’t you ask me about it?”

“A gentleman does not ask things like that. He waits until he’s told. That is something private,” Tomlin told Daniel.

“Good grief, you’ve really turned into an old gentleman fart from here!” Daniel laughed.

Tomlin grinned. “It grows on you. It does. I’ve learnt to appreciate it, Daniel.” The man was serious now, Daniel knew.

“I am sure, Tomlin. I did not mean to offend you.”

“You never will, old friend.” Tomlin raised his glass with what came closest to cognac on this planet. “To a friendship refound and reforged,” he said, “and to many more meetings like this.”

They toasted.

The evening flew by. Tomlin was quite unstable on his legs by the time they left the Brostil Faring club. Daniel supported him. Again, the alcohol had no effect on his Bactine body, so he made sure that Tomlin got into a carriage safely and checked that the address his friend put into the vehicle’s plate was correct. Tomlin insisted on giving Daniel his address, and after loading that in Daniel’s box, the carriage rattled off.

Daniel started his walk back. At times he grinned, recalling some of the stories Tomlin had told him. Daniel was happy for his friend. Tomlin really had become a citizen of this planet. His life was here now.

Tomlin married. Daniel chuckled at the thought. Daddy Tomlin. That made him grin. His grin froze as through a sneaky back-door the image of his brother Malcolm was thrown in. It made his pace slower and it unsettled him.

“No. You are not going to ruin this night’s memory, Malcolm,” Daniel whispered and shook off the image, forcing his thoughts back to Tomlin and the things they had done together, when Tomlin had been his partner in active duty.

Somewhere, despite (or perhaps because of) the late hour, he had to wait crossing a street as a line of carriages passed by. The curtains over the windows were drawn. Wondering what this caravan was, Daniel watched as the vehicles went by. He just stood there, staring, seeing nothing, as his mind was drifting off into a void.

A gentle tugging at his sleeve brought him back to the side walk in Skarak. He looked down at the rather scruffy boy that peered up at him.

“You well, Seigner?” the child asked. He had a few smears over his forehead and cheeks.

“Yes. I am well. Thank you.”

The boy nodded and smiled. Then he walked away. Daniel wondered why the boy wasn’t at home and in bed. “Hello, boy?”

The child stopped and turned. “Seigner?”

“Are you okay?”

“I am, sir, I am. Thank you for asking.” In the dim light of the street lanterns, the boy smiled again. “Is that all, sir?”

“That’s all.” Daniel was tempted to tell the boy to go home, but something held him back. That was something for… fathers.

“Good night, Seigner,” said the boy and then continued on his way.

Daniel crossed the street and went home himself.

He lay on his bed for several hours, but sleep did not come. His thoughts kept running in circles. They wanted to focus on Tomlin and Malcolm and Tomlin and — “Oh, crap…”

Daniel got up, poured a glass of water and stood in front of the window. His eyes were drawn to the now dark shape that was the Pricosine. A few lights were burning aboard the enormous sailing ship. Then the dancing lights on the water behind the boat attracted his attention, and after lingering there for a while he was looking up at the three pink moons that reflected the light from the giant star that was known as NGC6637.

12. All aboard

With a grin, Daniel tucked the hydger away. It had taken a bit of tinkering, but he had managed to access a local library through it, and downloaded a bunch of information about the planet into it. Too bad that the capacity of the hydger was very limited, but it would give him something to read when out on the Pricosine. There were possibilities to the hydger that nobody had told him about, and he felt proud that he had managed to get this done.

Daniel looked around the room. He had everything he wanted to take, so he put on his coat, checked the shine of his shoes and picked up his gear. The ship was ready to sail again. They would be gone for a while, delivering a silk-like cargo and also a shipment of grain. On the way back they were to collect all people and their belongings who were living on a small island. The island had become a rather dangerous place now, and they had to be relocated to a village not very far from Skarak.

Ulaman had notified him that they would be sailing very early, so it was still dark when Daniel got out on the street. The carriage he had called for arrived soon, which was a good thing. There was a definite chill in the air this morning. As he was on the way to the harbour he wondered if the carriages would just wait somewhere, or return to a kind of rendez-vous point after a specific period of time. The still silent world did not have an answer for him.

Aboard the ship there was a lot of action already, as the crew was busy making preparations for the journey. Daniel greeted them, but did not keep them from their tasks. He quickly made his way to his cabin below deck and started changing into his ‘work clothes’. He was about to leave his cabin when the hydger complained with its rattling sound.

The display announced that he was receiving a relayed message. The ID on it was from his old location; the star base. He sat down on his bunk and opened the message. Two seconds later he wished he hadn’t.

“What kind of mess did you get yourself in? I heard that you are thrown out?” The message was from his brother. Daniel sighed and located the delete switch. The message was erased and the display was grey again. Daniel however saw red for a while. It took him a big conscious effort to get over this. He did not want this. His life was his own business, and nobody had to judge him over it, nor call him out to justify what had happened.

He slipped the hydger in his pocket and went to the deck, where he picked up one of the strange semi-bikes and paddled it over the length of the ship. The movement and the pressure he lay on himself to do his job made the memory of the message fade.

After making the round he went up to the bridge, to find Ulaman, Xandree and Lidrin going over long lists.

“Hi Daniel,” Xandree said, waving him to a chair.

Daniel sat down; he did not want to disturb them. It looked important, or at least complicated.

A few minutes later, Darigyn came on to the bridge. “Ula, he’s here.” Then the big man disappeared again.

Daniel frowned as Ulaman set off after Darigyn, charging down the steps. “What’s that?” he had to ask.

Xandree shrugged. “It’s the mouse again. He always shows up before we leave on longer journeys. Don’t forget to talk to the Seigner, Daniel.”

“At this time?” Daniel looked out the window and saw the first light of the day paint the waves.

“At any time before we leave. He’ll be awake.” Xandree sounded very certain.

Daniel called Clelem, in his mind preparing some excuses in case this was not the right time.

“Mr. Zacharias. I am pleased to see you are conscientious about your task,” the Seigner greeted Daniel. “Is everything in order?”

“Yes, sir. I have checked the ship, it is fine. I will make a second round just before we cast off.”

“Very good, Mr. Zacharias. I am putting a lot of trust in you. Have a safe journey, Mr. Zacharias.” The connection was ended.

“Told you,” Xandree remarked. “You could go help Draiky make tea and broth. It is cold. The men will need it.” Practical as ever.

“Yes. I’ll go there, but could you please tell me who ‘the mouse’ is?”

Xandree made a face. “Gaguran Slindris. Although sometimes I wonder if he is more a weasel than a mouse. I don’t like him.”

Daniel nodded. He understood. The man had never done anything wrong towards him, but there was something about the man that made him wonder at times.

Ulaman came back in. “That was a quick one. He’s probably cold, the idiot. Scared his nuts will freeze off”

Xandree laughed. “He’d need nuts for that. The mouse probably ate them already.”

The bridge almost shook with laughter.

“I think he’s wetting himself over the girl again,” said Ulaman as he rubbed his big hands and threw some more wood into the fire of the heater.

“He’s a lost cause, that mouse. He’ll never have her, and he knows it.” Xandree put on her jacket and walked to the door. She caught Daniel’s wondering expression. “Slindris is infatuated with the Seigner’s daughter. If ever you see them together, keep your eyes open. We have a bet going when he will trip over his tongue.” With that, she left the bridge.

Lidrin grinned. “Watch out with Xandree, Daniel. She has a habit of turning people into her willing servants. And she doesn’t even know it.”

Ulaman grumbled something and went back to his lists.

-=-=-

Two hours later the Pricosine was out of the harbour. The men were working frantically to get all the sails set, to get the ship to speed. Daniel was not allowed to help them; there had been sightings of unknown ships so he had to keep patrolling the length of the ship. He was grateful for his enhanced eye, which outperformed every telescope on the ship.

“Hey, watchman,” a rough voice said behind him.

Daniel grinned as he turned around. “Draiky. Hello to you.” He gladly accepted the mug of hot tea. He had been on board for hours already, looking for ships carrying bad news, and despite his Bactine body, he was getting cold deep inside. He was pleasantly surprised to smell she had spiked his tea somewhat.

The ship’s cook grinned. “Thought you would like that.” The short, plump woman was wrapped in what could be a small grey tent, but it fit her. “Anything scary out there?”

Daniel shook his head. “Nothing yet, unless it is underwater.”

“Oh, plenty of that,” Draiky said, “but they don’t take on ships. Good luck. Talk to you again.” With that she left Daniel to his watch.

After a short break and a nap in the afternoon, Daniel had taken his watch again. Now he returned to the bridge. Darkness had set in already, and the Pricosine sailed in darkness.

Stroro was at the steering wheel, whistling a terrible tune. “Having fun out there?”

“A bundle of laughs,” Daniel grinned. “I am beginning to talk to the birds out there.”

Stroro nodded. “The glowbirds are fascinating. They’re also a pest. When they shit on you, you’ll be glowing for weeks.”

Daniel had seen several glowing patches on the deck. “Would it help to clean that up?”

“No. Save your energy. They shit faster than you can wipe, and you’ll be their preferred target.”

Daniel wondered why they had not seen glowbirds on the first trip. That was, Stroro told him, because the glowbirds did not like the warmer areas. “The happy crappers like it here, where it’s cold.”

After four days of sailing they arrived at the port of Nairit Lagharn, where the grain was unloaded. The port was gigantic, Daniel was more than just impressed by the sheer size of it. The cranes that were used to remove the grain from the cargo bays were capable of such tonnage that they had done the job within a day.

During the unloading, Daniel had a day off. There was no chance of anything happening here. Unfortunately the port of Nairit Lagharn was too far away from a town to go and visit it, so he spent a lot of time in the galley, chatting to Draiky. He liked the plump woman who came to bring him tea at the most impossible hours of his watch.

He learnt that Draiky came from a very violent past. She did not make it a secret that she was lesbian and living together with a woman when ashore. Her family however had not taken well to her revelation and had rejected her. One of her brothers, she told, had beaten her up quite severely too, having her end up in a hospital for a few weeks. That was the last her family had seen of her.

“The folks on board are good for me,” she said, scratching her arm. “They accept me. So I am good for them. I love it here, and I can go to places and bring little things for Ombra.”

Ombra, Daniel knew, was the woman who was waiting for Draiky to return home whenever the cook was away on a voyage. “That’s nice.”

Draiky grinned. “Sometimes she curses me for bringing so much, but I know she likes it.”

Daniel laughed about that. “Do you already know what you will bring her this time?”

The cook shook her head. “No idea. Nothing from here, that’s for sure.”

“Maybe you have a chance when we reach Britna the Red,” Daniel said, getting up.

“Doubt it,” Draiky said, “been there a few times and it’s not worth going ashore. Boring place.” She scratched her arm again.

“You should see a doctor about that,” Daniel pointed at her arm.

“Nah, had it forever. Doctors don’t know what to do against it. I’ll live.”

Daniel wished her a good day and went to the bridge again, hoping to learn a few more things about the planet and the ship.

Four days later they were in the harbour of Britna the Red. Smaller barges, some under sail and some with men pulling long oars, worked to get the silk offloaded. The Pricosine was too large to moor at the quay.

Daniel climbed back on board the Pricosine after visiting the town. As he stepped off the rope-ladder, Bilk grinned widely at him.

“How often did you fall asleep?”

The fame of the town was wide spread, obviously, and Daniel’s experience spread it even wider. “It was bad,” he told Bilk, who nodded in agreement.

“We all know,” said the alien with the strange spotted skin. His expression was clear. They all had tried to convince Daniel that a visit was not worth the trouble.

“I know now also. Next time I’ll listen,” the security man said.

“Better not be so dumb,” a voice behind him said. Xandree grinned. “They will take you for a bragoon one day, you should know that.”

Daniel was not sure what a bragoon was, but coming from Xandree it did not mean much good.

“At least you had a good day to head out,” Bilk said. It was indeed a nice and sunny day.

“True. I’ll go and make a round on the ship,” Daniel said. It was not necessary here in the harbour, but it would not hurt. As he was reaching the stern of the ship, he saw a lone figure sitting there. He stepped off the walker-bike and sauntered over. To his surprise it was Draiky. She seemed to work on something.

Daniel made sure that he was approaching her loudly, as not to startle her. He saw a sketchpad on her knees as she turned around and looked up at him.

“Hi,” she said, and turned back to her sketchpad.

“Hello. Do you mind if I spy on you?”

She grinned loudly. “There must be more worthwhile things or people for you to watch. But I am not stopping you.”

Daniel sat down next to her and looked at the paper. It was a drawing of the nearby ridge of mountains that had a very remarkable shape. And it was an amazing drawing. “You are good, Draiky.”

“Is nothing. Just some scratching to pass the time.” As if it reminded her, she scratched her forearms. As her sleeves were rolled up, because of the nice weather, Daniel saw large yellow and orange spots on her arms.

“That does not look good,” he remarked, trying to make it sound casual.

She shrugged. “Glandrine rash. Rare and untreatable. But you get it at birth, not otherwise. Everyone’s safe from me.” She snickered.

“Glandrine? What’s that?”

“I don’t know the fancy words, Daniel. I just know that everyone who is born on the planet has it. It grows inside us. They say it’s from the water. It’s in our skin and it stops us from getting sick and stuff.”

Daniel nodded. With strange chemical compounds in the water that would dissolve metal, there was bound to be some effect on human bodies too.

“When we die, the doctors take the glandrine layer from our skin and store it somehow. When people get hurt, there is a supply of it so they can fix people.”

“I see.” It made sense, although the practice sounded a bit odd. But then, if the stuff was so good that it could save lives, why not. Out in space there were far weirder and worse practices. At least here they waited until people were dead before stripping their skin.

Draiky returned to her drawing and fell silent. Daniel quietly got up and left her working on the drawing that was becoming better all the time.

13. A night on the town

After unloading the silky material in Britna the Red, they received quite a large amount of food and drinking water. These supplies were definitely needed if they were going to have lots of extra mouths to feed on board.

Ulaman plotted their course and they set sail for the island where a large group of people were waiting to be rescued. That was only two days sailing, and it was obvious why the people had to be evacuated. The island had fallen victim to a nearby rift that had started to stretch itself. Many parts of the island had been torn apart already, and the rest was just waiting for that fate to happen.

The refugees came in their own boats, large and small, and Daniel worked as hard as everyone else to get the people to safety. The sea floor shuddered several times as the rescue operation was going on. Strange waves appeared on the surface. The tremors were not strong enough to make the Pricosine notice, which was a good thing. Getting two thousand people with their belongings and a load of animals on board without proper means was a task in itself.

The people were calm during their evacuation, and that was the biggest help the crew could ask for. The loading of the people and animals took two days and meant hardly any sleep for any of the crew. Also Draiky and Xandree pitched in where they could.

Ulaman had the three leading people from the island on the bridge and had asked Daniel to be there as well.

Daniel understood that. Ulaman, being the captain, now was responsible for several thousand heads, wanted to make sure that there was an independent witness who could state that he had done things by the book. Seigner Clelem would insist on that.

“I hope,” said Ulaman, “that your people will be able to find a good place to stay. We’re about to sail, and if the winds are with us we can make it to your new home in 3 to 4 days. If there is something you need, or you have a problem, call on me.”

The three people thanked Ulaman and promised that they would keep the hindrance for the crew down to the minimal amount they could muster.

“We will come and check up on you,” Ulaman said. “Everyone of the crew will be taking part in this. We have heard that you have several stoves and furnaces with you to make food, is that right?”

“Yes, captain. We can make for our own food.”

Everything was in order. The three left the bridge and Ulaman started giving orders through his tube.

-=-=-

Skarak was coming back into view. The crew of the Pricosine were shattered but happy and relieved that the move of the people had gone well. As soon as they were in hydger range, Ulaman reported to Clelem about the journey and that all people had been rescued and safely in their new town. Daniel, Lidrin and Xandree were present at the ‘conference call’.

“Excellent work, captain Ulaman,” Clelem said. “You have done an outstanding job. My compliments to the crew. They have all deserved a gratification which I will allow for personally.”

Daniel was perplexed. That was a boss one would love to work for. The cheers from the crew, when the word was spread, made it clear that they all thought so.

After the ship was moored the crew washed up and made themselves presentable, orders of the captain. At the designated hour, everyone reported on deck and then the whole crew, to which Daniel was counted by now, walked off the long, high gangway, carrying their bags. They would be off again for a while as the ship was cleaned, checked and prepared for a new cargo.

On the quay, to Daniel’s amazement, was a carriage. He’d never seen one there.

Ulaman made them all line up and then walked over to the carriage. After a knock on the door, he came back and stood in line also. Several people who were busy at the docks stopped what they were doing and took a very interested stance.

The carriage opened. Gaguran Slindris stepped out. He was followed by Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem, and after him a young woman exited the carriage.

Stroro, who stood next to Daniel, whispered: “That’s the Seigner’s daughter.”

The three came closer. Only Clelem and Gaguran walked up to the line of sailors. The woman kept a distance. Clelem had prepared a short speech in which he cordially thanked the crew for their superb work in saving all the lives of the islanders.

“The comisar of Skarak, the comisar of Zoroon and also the president of the Ship Owners Society have asked me to convey their gratitude to you.” Clelem then nodded to Gaguran, who reached in his pocket and pulled out a leather purse. Each of the people from the crew, including Daniel, were handed a golden and a silver coin. Judging from the response of the other crew members, this represented quite a handsome amount.

After that little ceremony, Clelem returned to where his offspring was waiting. Daniel had a short time to look at the woman. She was small. Her hair was long, brown and overly fluffy. Her dress, made of something deep red velvet and yellow brocade. She was using a fan for no apparent reason, hiding her face behind it. Clelem gave her his arm and escorted her to the carriage, even though it was only a few dozen feet away.

Gaguran trailed behind them and entered the carriage last.

Ulaman thanked everyone for the attention, and congratulated them on the fine bonus. “Enjoy your shore leave, people,” he said, quickly taking off his captain’s hat as the carriage was moving away.

-=-=-

Four people cruised the streets of the lower side of Skarak. Daniel had been picked up by Stroro, Lidrin and Bilk, who would not take no for an answer. There was no need for a no, as there was no question. Daniel was taken out for a night on the town, sailor style.

They had seen an amazing amount of bars, pubs and similar places already, and now they were on their way to the next one. Lidrin and Stroro were loudly singing a rawdy sailor song. Bilk hummed along, for some reason he had not sung a note the entire evening. Daniel was just laughing at the few words of the song that he understood.

“Oh, here we have to go. Stop, stop, here, you big thing,” Stroro yelled out, disrupting the song.

They had arrived at the Tub. The outside of the bar was made to look as a barrel, which added to the looks of the place. Daniel doubted that his fellow men were sober enough to notice that. As usual, the alcohol did nothing to Daniel. The Bactine body eliminated all of its effects.

They moved in, making a lot of noise. It went mostly unnoticed, as the racket inside the Tub was deafening.

The Tub was made for people who love standing at a bar. Or lying over one. The bar consisted of seven circles, one inside the other. There were openings in three places where people could move to a ring more on the inside, or to the outside.

Lidrin found them a spot in one of the outer circles where they ordered large glasses of Lativian beers. As they were drinking, the four had a relaxed conversation, whilst shouting their lungs out to overcome the noise around them.

“Don’t you love this place?” Lidrin yelled in Daniel’s ear.

“It looks like fun,” Daniel roared back.

“Nah, the fun still has to start,” Lidrin commented.

The fun did not take long to appear. All over the Tub, dozens of large concrete tubs filled with ice water came out of the walls. To make things look more attractive, each tub was covered in huge amounts of colourful bubbles.

Many of the people in the bar started yelling and cheering.

“Better stay close to us,” Stroro advised Daniel. “And hold on to the bar. That’s important.”

Daniel accepted the advice. Around them, most of the sailors started a wrestling match. Each one was attempting to dunk his colleague in one of the tubs. Each ‘hit’ was accompanied by loud cheering, after which the wrestling match continued.

The fun continued for about half an hour, after which there was no water left in any of the tubs. It either seeped from the unfortunate sailors (who did not seem to mind), or was over the floor.

The tubs were retracted into the wall and the fun bit was over, leaving the sailors to themselves and their stories and drinks.

Daniel assumed it was safe to let go of the bar. He had noticed that his fellows had done the same, and all others who held on to the bar were left in peace. Apparently it was an unwritten rule in the Tub.

As Bilk was ordering another round of beers, Daniel caught sight of a young man with a very pale complexion, shabby clothes and an unhealthy overall appearance. Among the big and strong sailors, the man stood out like a sore thumb. His instincts kicked in and after excusing himself for a moment, he moved along the round bar so he would keep the young man in sight.

The man moved to the far end of the outermost bar where three men were standing. He reached in his pocket and rolled some small stuff on the bar while talking to the men.

Daniel enhanced his vision, using his electronic eye. “Crap,” he whispered. He recognised the drugs that were on the bar as TSD and Rood.

TSD, officially known as Trero-Sulphur-Dermoxyn, was better known as Toxic Shit you Die of. It was a chemical drug, meant to relax, but often made people die. The drug was made of a selection of waste products. Rood, he knew, was some alien vegetable drug. It put people to sleep as in a coma, and it was unpredictable when they would come out of it. If at all. And the filth existed even here.

“Daniel.” A hand rested on his shoulder.

Stroro had come after Daniel. “Don’t mess with them, Daniel. They are bad news, you don’t want to get involved with them.”

Daniel looked at his sailor friend. “I’ve dealt with them before. I’m a soldier, Stroro, I have to arrest that man.”

“You can’t. You are not here as a soldier, remember than. You are a security man for the Society.” Stroro shook Daniel by the shoulder, hoping that he could make the man see sense.

“Who’s a soldier here?” a loud voice rang out. It was better than a switch. Within seconds there was a silence in the Tub that was scary.

“There is no soldier here,” Stroro tried.

“Oh, right,” another voice said. “I heard your mate there say he was a soldier. We don’t have soldiers in here, right boys?”

There was no more reason to talk. The appearance of the Tub changed considerably in the twenty minutes it took for law enforcement to arrive and clear out the bar.

14. Jailbirds

The line of carriages painted black and yellow was impressive. Daniel had never seen so many of them in one street. The downside of it was that he was stowed in one of them as an official guest of the Skarak police force.

As the caravan started to move, Daniel asked Stroro, who was in the same carriage, why the police had taken so long to get there.

Stroro shrugged. “I think they wait until most of us are somewhat tired of fighting. Makes things easier for them.” The snort that he ended with was very meaningful. Sailors who were in a fight did not get tired. They got more energised.

“Nobody charged us with anything,” Daniel continued.

“They never do,” Stroro displayed his experience. “They stick us in the brig, the boss comes to get us out, we promise not do it anymore and we walk.”

“Sounds like that is a contradiction. You did this before, right?”

“Yeah. Different bar.” Stroro grinned. “They know they can’t stop us. It’s a game between them and us.”

Daniel was not pleased. He’d been in enough trouble already; this bit of joy would not look good on him. The carriage did not look like something strong enough to hold his Bactine body in for long, but a break-out of a police carriage would probably do him even more damage.

The sailors all seemed quite relaxed under the circumstances. Some of them were already snoring. Stroro was one of them.

The ride ended. The door swung open and outside, to Daniel’s surprise, were just two policemen who watched the group of sailors walk into the building. They all seemed to know the way and located the cells on their own. Some were looking around for their buddies, so they’d be in the same cells for the time being.

“Daniel. Over here.” Bilk waved at him, holding up Stroro. Lidrin was with him also, so Daniel pushed his way through the stream of sailors. “This is a good one. To the side. And quiet.”

Daniel stared as they moved into the cell. He slowly followed. “Want me to close the door?”

Lidrin shook his head. “Why? Nobody’s going to rob us here, we’re in the brig.”

Bilk lowered Stroro on one of the beds where the sailor continued his snoring. They were joined by three more sailors, who also picked a bunk to crash on.

Daniel sank on a bed and looked around, not understanding the proceedings at all.

“There’s water there,” Lidrin pointed to a table with some bottles in the corner, “and the piss is outside, to the left.”

Mere minutes later every single one of them, except Daniel, was asleep. The former soldier sat with his back leaning against a wall.

“Hey you. Everything okay?”

Daniel looked at the man who stood near the open door. “Yes. I am fine.”

“Good. Just making sure.” The man, in official law enforcement uniform, looked Daniel over. “Are you certain? You look a bit strange.”

“I’m fine, really.”

“If you say so. Sleep well.”

Daniel watched the man stroll off. He shook his head and lay down. After a while he fell asleep also.

The next morning he awoke to the sound of noise. He rose quickly. Around him, sailors were slowly getting to their feet, stretching themselves. One after the other disappeared for a visit to ‘the piss’, a relieved expression on their face as they returned.

Outside the cell the name of a ship was called out, and men came from the cell. They assembled near a man in a suit who spoke to them and then the group left the police station without further ado.

More and more ships names were called, and the cells were emptying rapidly.

“Pricosine!”

“Ah. That’s us.” Stroro hauled himself to his feet. They walked out of the cell, Daniel last, and walked up to Clelem, who stood waiting with Gaguran. They were both dressed to the nines.

“Ah, gentlemen,” their employer said. “It appears you had a good night out. Mr. Zacharias, I see you are settling in quite nicely with the crew.”

“Seigner, I am truly sorry. I-”

“It is fine, Mr. Zacharias. It is fine.”

Daniel could not believe his ears. Best thing now was to keep his mouth shut and to hope that someone would clarify all this sometime soon.

Clelem nodded to Gaguran. They turned and walked outside, the sailors in their wake.

“Have a good day, gentlemen,” Clelem said. He nodded and turned to walk to his waiting carriage. As the door opened, Daniel could not restrain himself. “Seigner Dandra ko Galem.”

The man slowly turned. “Ah. Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel noticed the highly disapproving look on the face of the serving man and ignored it. “I beg your pardon, sir, but can you please clarify the proceedings? I am, to say the least, extremely puzzled.”

Clelem frowned for a moment. He cast a glance inside the carriage, where Daniel spotted the frilly girl again, fan up for protection. “Of course. I should not expect that lot to explain all this to you. Would you mind riding with us? We have more things to do.”

Daniel looked at his attire. “I’m afraid I am not exactly properly dressed, sir,” he said.

“For this time, I will not take offence, Mr. Zacharias. After all, we know what has happened.” Clelem Dandra ko Galem got into the carriage. Gaguran stepped in and Daniel followed. He was stared at by the young woman. Two large brown eyes over the rim of the fan, that then quickly looked away, out the carriage.

Gaguran did his trick with the hydger. Daniel noticed that he had a very small one this time, like an oversized locket.

“Mr. Zacharias,” Clelem said, “the Ship Owners Society is aware of the strain that seafaring folk are living under when away for so long. Therefore it is no more than natural that sailors feel the need to let off steam, so to speak. For that reason, twice a year an establishment in the sailor’s district is selected to be redecorated.”

“Redecorated?” Daniel missed something crucial, he was certain of that. He blamed the long and intense night and the short sleep.

“Indeed. The name of the establishment is mentioned to at least one person of the crew, who will then direct his fellow crewmen there. At a certain point they will start fighting, which will severely damage the interior. As you may have witnessed. This makes the removal of the interior easier for the workmen. The seafaring folk had their brawl and a secure place to sleep, and in the morning we come to collect them.”

Daniel’s surprise was growing.

“The Ship Owners Society has a separate fund for carrying some of the costs that are involved in redecorating the establishment. It can, after all, happen that some of the sailors get a bit carried away in their efforts.”

“But sir, I was the one who started the fight.” Daniel felt bad about that.

“Good for you, Mr. Zacharias. But do you believe that the night would have gone by peacefully if you had not done that?”

The carriage came to a halt. “I believe we have reached your homestead, Mr. Zacharias. I commend your honesty. Have a good day, sir.”

Daniel left the carriage and said his goodbyes. As the carriage rattled off, he scratched his head. This was really insane. The ship owners decided what place needed to be patched up and arranged for the sailors to take most of it apart. He grinned and went up to his apartment. After a shower and some breakfast he dropped himself on the bed and was asleep in seconds.

15. A new trip

The hydger rattled. Daniel picked it up from the table and recognised Ulaman’s sign. “Ulaman, good morning.”

“Hello, Daniel. The ship is ready for new sailing. There have been some alterations to the rudder and we have a new sail. The Seigner wants us to take the ship out for a long test. We will leave in the afternoon.”

“I’ll be there, Ulaman.”

“I know.” Ulaman’s face attempted a smile and the screen went grey.

Daniel stretched his legs under the table. He was sitting outside a nice little restaurant, enjoying a brew called sturt which was the local excuse for coffee. He had grown to like it. Tomlin Barker had pointed it out to him some days ago. “It makes a nice change to tea, Daniel,” he had said. His friend had been right.

Daniel had enjoyed the days on shore; they had allowed him to travel around a bit and learn more of the town and the adjacent areas. It was not a bad place to live, but the lack of action (not counting a certain bar fight) was getting to him, so he was glad to go out again. Even if it was just a short trip.

He finished his cup of sturt, paid using his ring and headed back to his apartment. Getting his things was routine by now, so soon he was on his way to the harbour. He grinned as he came up to the immense ship. Seeing it like this was so much better than the view from his window. As he came closer, his grin changed to a frown. There were a few carts at the bottom of the gangway with the names of companies he did not recognise. Men he did not know and who did not look like they belonged on the ship were climbing up and down, taking things.

Daniel walked up to the deck and saw Draiky watching the men. “Hello, Xandree. What’s all this?”

The woman shrugged. “I am not sure. Orders from the Seigner, I heard. Ulaman and Xandree are not here, they asked me to keep an eye on these people.”

Two men tried to bring aboard a very large, long chest. They were swaying on their feet precariously as they tried to lift the thing up. Daniel dropped his things and quickly gave the men a hand. A fall down, he knew, meant certain death. The quay was hard and the water unforgiving.

“Thank you, sir!” the men said as they came aboard. They picked up the chest and disappeared below deck.

“They are hammering down there,” Draiky informed Daniel. “Lot of noise. I’m happy the galley is far from there.”

Daniel nodded. “I’ll go put my stuff away and see what’s going on.”

“Good luck, Daniel.” Draiky turned to the next man was bringing a bag of stuff on board, checked a list, and directed him below deck.

Daniel followed the man who moved slowly under his load. It was also obvious he was not used to moving about on a ship. The security man frowned as he saw the man stagger into the cabin opposite his own, where a lot of the hammering and sawing came from. The ‘Keep Out’ sign on the door made him wonder even more.

He was stowing his belongings when the hydger rattled. It was Gaguran Slindris. “Mr. Zacharias. Good day. I am calling you, on behalf of Seigner Dandra ko Galem, to inform you about work being undertaken aboard the Pricosine.”

“I am already aware of that, Mr. Slindris,” Daniel said. “The workers are hammering loud enough not to miss it.”

“Very good. They are all selected and found safe to work on board, Mr. Zacharias. There is no need for you to be concerned, or to interrogate them.”

“Interrogate? That is a bit drastic, isn’t it?” Daniel wondered where that suddenly came from.

“I just want to make sure you understand. The work has to be done before the Pricosine sails. Seigner Dandra ko Galem asks if you can assure that all safety precautions have been taken and checked. And that the rescue vessel is in order, for the eventual case that it is needed.”

“Of course, I’ll see to that. May I ask what this is all about?”

“You will learn about that soon enough, Mr. Zacharias.” It was evident that Gaguran wanted the conversation to end.

“Very well, sir. Thank you for letting me know.”

“Good day, Mr. Zacharias. Apologies for being negligent; you should have been informed of this earlier.” That was all. The grey display was a clear sign.

After storing his things and changing clothes, Daniel went up on deck again and looked for Ulaman once more. The captain was still not there. He heard his name and turned, seeing a small group gathered near a mast. He walked over. “Hi, guys. What’s the matter here?”

Brinno made a hushing sound. Then he whispered: “Something strange going on, Daniel. Something really strange. There’s rumours that there be a passenger on the ship.”

“That would not surprise me, really,” Daniel said. “There’s a lot of activity going on below deck. Inside a cabin. Did the rumours also spill who the passenger will be?”

Brinno and the others shook their heads. “Nah. Nothing for sure anyways. Some say that it is the Seigner. Some say it is the mouse.”

Daniel grinned at the way Brinno spat out the word ‘mouse’.

“There should na be a passenger on de ship. She’s a cargo ship, na passenger carrier,” another sailor said, proud of his work and not too keen on strangers.

Daniel left the guessing group as he had to do his round over the deck, and under it too. He grinned at the lot as he walked off. Chattering and gossiping as the next man in the market square.

As he returned from the round over the deck, Draiky was no longer on her spot to direct people. Daniel peeked over the side. Some of the carts had left, some were still there. He went below deck and found the ‘Keep Out’ sign still attached to the door. He knocked and opened the door as far as it would go.

“Hey!” someone yelled, “can’t you read?!” The door bounced back. Daniel obviously was not supposed to come in.

“I am the security person for the Pricosine. I just want to check things are okay in there.”

“They’re okay, now go and let us do our job. We’re pressed for time as it is.”

Daniel sighed. “Okay. Have fun in there.” He’d have a look there as soon as the men had left. The fact that a cabin here was being worked in did add body to the rumours that there would be a passenger on board. But perhaps it was something for the future. Daniel disagreed with that last thought. It was still strange that this rush-job was being done only hours before they would take the ship out for a test. Also the comment about the rescue boats…

“You’re looking for ghosts, Zacharias,” he told himself. Instead of ghosts, looking at the cargo bays and checking out the bridge was a better use of his time.

Before going up to the bridge, Daniel went by the galley to have a look around there.

“What’s that?” Draiky asked. “You don’t trust anybody, do you?”

“I am just doing a routine check, Draiky,” he smiled. “I know you are okay, it is just a part of the game.”

“Game. Of course,” Draiky grumbled. She did not allow Daniel to leave without having a cup of tea first, though.

Lidrin was alone on the bridge. The man was on his knees, up to his shoulders inside the housing that had all the controls for the large steering wheel.

“Lidrin, are things well?”

The sailor jumped at the sudden words. He cursed after that, because the compartment he was in did not allow for much jumping. Rubbing his head, he got up. “Oh, it’s you. Hadn’t heard you come in.”

“Sorry, Lidrin. I didn’t know-”

“That’s okay. I shouldn’t be poking in there anyway.” The helmsman closed the door again. “I just wanted to see what they had done to the mechanism. All looks in order though. So what’s this about the mouse coming on board as a passenger for the trip?”

Daniel laughed. “News sure travels fast here.”

Lidrin’s face lit up. “So it is true then! Damn the water-spears, nobody will be happy about that.”

Daniel explained that all he had heard so far were rumours as well.

“Come on, Daniel, tell me what you know.”

“That is all I know, except that Ulaman and Xandree are not here yet,” Daniel insisted. “That, and the workmen who are below, rebuilding a cabin.”

Lidrin nodded. “I saw them too. And the two walls they took out and carried off the ship.”

“Two walls?” Daniel’s eyes became large for a moment. “That’s strange.” He was tempted to contact Gaguran Slindris and ask what was going on, when Lidrin pointed. “The bear and his female are coming back.”

They watched the quay. Indeed. Ulaman’s unmistakable shape and his wife came walking towards the Pricosine.

“They’ll be up soon, we can ask them then,” Lidrin knew. His knowledge proved wrong. The two did not climb up the long gangway, but seemed to wait for something.

“I’m going down there and see what’s going on,” said Daniel.

The helmsman watched him go, slightly envious. He was not allowed to leave his post.

“Ulaman, Xandree,” Daniel said as he reached the two. “Good to see you.”

“Ah. Daniel,” said the captain. “You surveyed the ship, did you?”

“Yes. Everything is in order. I just had no chance yet to check what’s going on in the cabin opposite mine.”

“They are not done yet?” Ulaman pulled a face. “They should’ve been done already.” He raised his voice somewhat and yelled at some of the sailors to go below deck and urge the workmen to hurry. His choice of words was rather creative, especially the part about the fate of the workers if they did not haul their asses of the ship soon. He then turned to Daniel again. “We’re having a visitor on the ship this run.”

Daniel nodded. “Who is it?”

“The Seigner’s daughter.”

“Oh God.” Daniel would have preferred even Gaguran over the woman. Ulaman nodded.

“And why?”

“She asked. That simple. The kid gets everything she wants. And more. I have a list of special orders here concerning her.”

“I don’t envy you,” Daniel said.

“You need not. I have a list for you as well.” With a wide smirk Ulaman pulled a rolled-up stack of paper from his pocket and slapped it in Daniel’s hand. “And your list is longer than mine. Start reading, she should be here soon.”

Daniel stared at the captain. “You’re kidding. This can’t be true. Soon I am going to wake up, right?”

Xandree looked at Daniel. “You’d better read. Or you are up for a very rude awakening.”

Daniel looked at the first page. “Safety. Food. Safety. Language- language?! We’re all screwed.”

“Language, Daniel,” Xandree said with her eternal straight face. And if she could read his mind: “No. Resigning is not an option.”

“Arrggghhh…” Daniel walked back towards the ship, reading the first page of the stack in his hand.

“Daniel!”

He turned around at Ulaman’s voice.

“Get back here. She’s coming. Be nice.” Ulaman looked as if he himself was in trouble also. “At least try to.”

At the end of the quay, three carriages were slowly moving towards them. After a few minutes, they came to a halt in front of the gangway where Ulaman, Xandree and Daniel had taken position.

The door of the first carriage swung open and Gaguran Slindris stepped out. Daniel frowned, until the man turned and reached for the hand of the frilly girl, to help her out of the coach.

The young woman was covered in an amazing amount of fabric, most of it yellow and beige. The dress was very nice if the beholder knew to appreciate it. She picked a small umbrella from the seat and turned towards Ulaman. “Good day, captain Xhylor,” she said with a smile. “Mrs. Xhylor, so pleased to meet you too.” Then she looked at Daniel. Her eyes sampled his leisurely military outfit. “Oh. It’s you.” Her attention went back to Ulaman.

As she was chattering and flattering the captain and his wife, Daniel wondered who would step out of the other carriages, but the doors remained closed. Ulaman’s voice shook him out of his thoughts. “What?”

“Wake up, Daniel. Can you start taking some of Miss Dandra ko Galem’s luggage up?”

Gaguran Slindris frowned at Daniel.

“Luggage? Where is that?” As he asked, a dreadful feeling hit him. The two other carriages. “Oh. Right. Sure.” He stepped away and looked at the railing where some of the sailors were waiting and watching.

“Are you sure that this man is a reliable member of your crew, captain?” he heard the woman say in a tiny sweet voice.

Daniel bit away some words that tried to force their way out. He should -not- make things worse than they already were. He waved his arm at some of the sailors and yelled up that they should come down to help.

“He yells so loudly,” the young woman said, her tone definitely disapproving. In a dramatic way she covered her ears, dismay on her face.

Daniel closed his eyes, breathed deeply and opened the first carriage door. Some of the suitcases were so eager to get on board that they fell out. He scrambled to catch them. Of the four he got one. He did not look at the woman who was still talking to Ulaman and Xandree. The short silence that fell was bad enough. He grabbed four suitcases and what looked like, heavens forbid, a box to carry a hat. Loaded like that he made his way to the gangway, but before he reached it, Ulaman called his name.

He turned and looked over the hat-box. “What can I do for you, captain?”

“Please step this way, Mr. Zacharias. Miss Dandra ko Galem has some problems with her footwear.”

Daniel wondered what that was to him, but he walked back to the four people.

“I wonder,” said Ulaman, “if you could be so good to carry Miss Dandra ko Galem to deck.”

16. Rayko

Daniel did not drop the suitcases. Brinno and Bilk arrived just in time and took them from his hands.

“Carry the young lady up to deck.” Daniel repeated the words and knew he was not helping his situation. “Of course.”

“Are your hands clean?” Miss Dandra ko Galem asked.

“They are, Miss,” Daniel said. “Now, if you allow me…” He lifted her up in his arms, ignoring the little squeal she let out as it happened.

“Do be careful with my dress,” she said, “it costs more than you earn in a year.”

Daniel did not respond. He walked towards the ship and seriously thought about how it would be to dump her in the water of the harbour. As he carried the woman upwards, she kept warning him what he had to be careful of, and where and what to watch.

“And don’t drop me. We are up scarily high!”

“Don’t worry, miss, I’ve been up this ship many times. I know my way around here.”

“My father told me you are not a proper sailor, sir, so I will worry if and when I choose to, thank you very much.”

Daniel suppressed a sigh of relief when finally he could put the woman on her feet. He just knew she would have problems with her footwear on the ship too. He also thought she should eat more, she was much too light.

Brinno and Bilk came up with suitcases. And boxes. Ulaman and Xandree were right behind them, and Xandree steered the young woman to the staircase that would bring her below deck. Daniel frowned. She did not seem to have problems walking here.

“More suitcases there, I guess?” he asked the skipper, who nodded. “Of course…”

-=-=-

Gaguran Slindris had made sure all the carriages returned to wherever they came from, riding in one of them. All the luggage was loaded and stowed. Another carriage had arrived, with a special assortment of food that should be served during the trip, and a cook.

Draiky, a calm person most always, had become very hostile when she heard she would have to share her galley with the strange cook. “If he so much as smears something on the stove in my caboose,” she threatened, “I’m using his face to wipe it off.”

After setting that straight, everything was ready for departure. The hawsers were released and brought in. The men had set a minimal sail as there was quite some wind, and the Pricosine moved away from the quay. Daniel was on the bridge, walking around to keep an eye on everything, Ulaman happily yelled commands into the tube, sailors on deck ran to follow them. Lidrin muttered something about the rudder and then they set course for open sea.

The first few hours the entire crew was working hard. Variations in sails were made, the new sail was severely tested as the wind was so favourable. Daniel wondered where the Dandra princess was, when suddenly he saw a yellow and beige spot at the far end of the boat, near the stern. His electronic eye made it easy to identify her.

“Our guest has drifted off to the stern, Ulaman. I’ll go bring her back,” Daniel said.

The captain nodded. “Keep an eye on her, Daniel. The Seigner will have our necks if something happens to her.”

Daniel left the bridge and walked down the length of the ship, to find miss Dandra ko Galem leaning against the side of the ship. Her dress flapped about her as a tempered flag, her hair was flying in the wind. She did not hear him approach, so he said: “Miss Dandra ko Galem.”

She looked at him. “Oh. It’s you again.” Then she turned her head back towards the water.

“Will you please come back with me, miss,” Daniel said. “It is not all that safe here.”

“It is nice here,” she said. “The wind feels nice.”

“Miss, I would really appreciate it if you were coming with me. The wind here can be treacherous.”

The woman turned and looked at him, leaning against the railing. “Don’t you lecture me. This is my father’s boat, and he only has good boats.”

“Ships,” Daniel corrected her.

“Boats,” she insisted.

Daniel picked up the remains of a command Ulaman issued, but couldn’t understand it. Anything could happen now.

“Changing tack!” someone overhead yelled. Slowly the ship tilted. The spanker, the last mast on the ship, caught the new wind and the immense rigging rushed over their heads, with a hard airflow following it.

The airwave almost hit the woman. Daniel grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her against him as the rush went past them.

“I’m sorry, but I had to,” he said as he let her go again. He saw how she trembled. The experience had shocked more than she would have thought.

“I — ehm — I was not prepared for this,” she said in a timid voice. “I assume I owe you gratitude.” She held on to Daniel’s arm as they walked back towards the bridge, but as they came closer to it, she let go and went to her cabin, holding on to the side of the bridge as she rounded it.

Daniel shook his head. This was had the makings of a disaster, and they were out of port for mere hours.

The evening had another small disaster in store. The cook that had come aboard for Miss Dandra ko Galem was not feeling all too well. Draiky had helped him, so the food that had been brought on board was not a total ruin, but the end result was far from what the aim had been.

The crew, who were eating with in the sailor’s canteen, heard about that from Draiky. A lot of laughing and snickering went around.

“I think the man will be sick tomorrow,” their cook declared. She was right.

The next day, the winds were up quite high. The Pricosine was under small sail again and Lidrin had a field day making the ship dance as he directed it with the new rudder. All his reservations against the new mechanism melted as ice as he learnt that the ship responded better.

The Seigner’s daughter did not show on deck as long as the tests were on the way. Ulaman told Daniel that he had warned the woman about the tests, and advised to keep to bed. “Looks like she listened. Also looks like we have to force-feed her cookery boy. That landlubber is sick as a dog, and there is not even a breeze.”

“Feeding a sick cook is not a security issue,” Daniel declared. “Ask Bilk or Stroro. I’m busy.” Ulaman’s laughter followed him as he left the bridge, heading for safety.

Later in the afternoon, Ulaman ordered the tests for the day over. All sails were stricken and the Pricosine floated calmly on the water.

Xandree went below deck and checked on their guest. The young woman was doing better than the crew had expected; she came to deck with Xandree, wearing a new dress.

“Now, miss, you stay close to Daniel- I mean Mr. Zacharias, and you will be as safe as you are in your own bed.”

“You can call me Rayko,” the young woman said with a smile. “I really appreciate how good your care is, Mrs. Xhylor.”

“Please, call me Xandree then.”

Rayko smiled and nodded. “I will go and watch the sea.” She walked to the railing and leaned against it, staying well in view of the bridge.

Daniel was sitting a hundred and twenty feet up in a mast, together with Stroro. They were checking how the rigging of the new sails had withstood the ordeal Lidrin had put them through.

“She does not appear to be sick,” the sailor remarked as he peeked down at the woman.

“No, true. Good for her.” Daniel yanked a rope. It held.

“You don’t like her, do you?” Stroro asked.

“I don’t. She is so stuck up, so pampered, so snotty and stubborn.” Daniel pulled another rope. It held too.

“She is a woman.” Stroro displayed all his knowledge about the other gender.

Daniel looked at the man and sighed. “I know.”

“We’re done here,” Stroro said.

“Yeah.” They climbed down and jumped the last stretch down to the deck.

The thuds made Rayko look at the sound. She saw the two men and frowned. “Where did you come from?”

Stroro pointed at the mast. “Up there, miss.” Then he walked off.

Rayko looked up the mast. “Oh.” As she looked down again, there was only Daniel. “That is high.”

Daniel groaned. “I know.”

“Uhm… I gathered that.” Rayko turned towards the water again. She wanted that man to just go away. He annoyed her to no end. And he was far too tall also. There was no beauty in that.

Daniel walked up to her. “Are you feeling well, Miss Dandra ko Galem?”

“Yes. Fine.”

“I mean, the ship was tilting and rolling quite a lot earlier,” Daniel tried.

“I am fine. Thank you.” Why did that man not take a hint? Did she have to swing a club at him to make him leave?

“Very well then. I’ll be seeing you, miss,” Daniel said, glad he could leave. He started for the bridge.

“Not if I can help it,” Rayko muttered into the wind.

Daniel’s enhanced ears caught it. “Stupid stuck-up,” he mumbled. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Ulaman was just coming down.

“Ah, Daniel. Come with me,” the bear-shaped captain said, clapping him on the shoulder. “We are in a very nice area with lots of wildlife in the water. I will explain some to you, and to Miss Dandra ko Galem.”

“Ulaman, I was just-”

“That can wait, Daniel. Come and learn something.” He dragged the security man along, to where he had just been. “Miss Dandra ko Galem, how nice to see you outside.”

“Hello, captain,” said Rayko. “It feels nice to be here.”

“Yes, good, good. There are many animals in the waters here, I thought it would be interesting for you to learn something about them?”

Rayko tried to look at Ulaman without noticing Daniel. Why did he have to be here again, she wondered. “If you would be so kind, captain, I’d be very interested.”

Ulaman was pleased. He pointed out dark spots in the water, which were a kind of rays that lived ninety feet under the surface. “Nasty animals, they are very poisonous. Good thing they live so far down.”

There were eels, dozens of feet long, big round fish that came to the surface and bobbed around after which they simply sank down again.

Rayko and Daniel both laughed at the antics of a species that looked like white seals who jumped up from the water like dolphins or floated around like otters.

Ulaman noticed that both stopped laughing as soon as they noticed the other one was laughing as well and wondered about that.

Then, after a while, their attention was drawn to a large bulk that moved through the water. It looked like a big rock, lacking its habit to sink.

“What is that?” Rayko asked as she pointed at the thing.

“That, Miss Dandra ko Galem, is a Fringy. It is a kind of fish, but it never leaves the surface. Nobody knows where they came from. Nobody knows what they live on. They seem to be fairly gentle, except when they are in the mating season.”

Rayko’s face coloured. “I see.”

They spent another half hour discovering animals. Then Daniel said he was going to make his round again and quickly paced off.

Rayko relaxed a bit as the man left. She wondered why she had become so tensed up with Mr. Zacharias around…

Daniel had laid down for a nap. He was going to do a night watch again. As he woke up he stared through the porthole, looking at the stars. and thought of his sister Cynthia. Now there was a smart kid. Never got married, as far as he knew, free as a bird, like himself. No kids, as far as he knew, just like himself. Maybe he should write to Cynthia someday. There were too many ‘as far as he knews’ in that last thought. From his sister his thoughts crawled over to this brother. Married, two children, and not a single moment of his life unplanned or disorganised.

The man on the bed shook his head slightly. That could not be a life. Life without freedom and adventure, it was unimaginable for him. The idea of being married… to whom, he wondered. He knew hardly any women. Rhonda was not the kind to marry and settle down either. Too much of a free spirit. And the women he had seen in Skarak and the other places he had been were not candidate material for someone like himself. He tried to recall some of them. He grinned at some of the memories. And then somehow the Seigner’s daughter popped into his head and that had all the properties to make his skin crawl. But Bactine skin did not crawl.

As a little worry started gnawing at him, asking if this life was really what he wanted, he got up to shake off that thought. He did not want to deal with that now. There was a night shift waiting for him, and the certainty that the spoilt girl was put away in her bed was a comforting thing. He would not run into her.

17. An unexpected visitor

The rest of the journey and the tests of the ship went well. Even the cook that had come aboard was feeling better and managed to do his work without too many problems. Draiky however was glad to see him leave.

Daniel did what he could to avoid the Seigner’s daughter and succeeded in that. Ulaman helped, as he understood that there was definitely no chemistry between them, apart from a destructive one.

As the harbour came back into view, Daniel was surprised by a gentle tap on his arm. It was the daughter of the Seigner.

“Excuse me, Mr. Zacharias. I would like to be at the front side of the… ship when we arrive. Do you deem it safe to stand there?”

It took Daniel a few moments to get over his surprise, then he nodded. “We’ll be on our way for at least another hour, miss.”

“I don’t mind, sir,” Rayko said. “It would really please me.”

“In that case I am sure we can find you a safe spot. One moment please, Miss Dandra ko Galem.” Daniel walked off to Bilk and told him where he’d be, taking the Seigner’s daughter to the bow.

“This way, please, miss,” he said upon his return. They walked to the place Daniel had in mind. “I assume you want to see how we come into port?”

“Yes.”

They arrived at a safe place, far away from moving ropes and masts.

“If you wait here for a moment,” Daniel said. He grabbed a large roll and stacked that against the railing. A Bactine body had its advantages.

Rayko looked in disbelief as he lifted the immense stack of rope. It weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds, she estimated, and he handled it as were it a pillow.

“It is perhaps not the most comfortable seat, but you could sit on it if you get tired. Miss.”

“Thank you, Mr. Zacharias. That is kind of you, but I am sure it won’t be needed.” She even condescended to show him a little smile.

“Very well, Miss Dandra ko Galem. I’ll come back for you once we’re moored, if you agree with that.”

“Of course.” Rayko stepped in front of the large bundle of rope, rested her hands on the railing and looked out over the water and towards the harbour.

Daniel waited for a few more moments, but she did not pay attention to him anymore. Just as well. He made his way back aft and divided his time between the bridge and helping the men stow sail and roll up roll. From the bridge he kept an eye on Rayko and grinned as he saw her sitting on the stack of ropes.

The hawkers were thrown, able men caught them and secured the Pricosine. Daniel saw a few carriages already down at the quay, so the Seigner had received the communication that they were almost back. Good. And good riddance.

As the men were lowering the gangway, he walked to the bow and made sure to make enough noise for her to hear him coming. “Miss, we’ve arrived, and everything is ready to disembark. Are you ready too?”

Rayko looked at him as if she was trying to put a value on him. “I am indeed ready. Thank you for remembering me.”

She walked with him, to where the men had collected her suitcases on deck. The cook had already taken his leave.

Landlubber, Daniel thought with a grin.

Rayko bravely stepped onto the gangway and looked down. It was steeper and deeper than she had thought. She stepped back, and red-faced she said: “I hope I do not inconvenience you, Mr. Zacharias, but would you please escort me down?”

Daniel grinned without showing it. “My pleasure, miss.” He carefully picked her up, knowing that the eyes of the whole crew were on him.

Rayko hesitated for a moment. Then she put an arm around Daniel’s neck. She buried her face in the clean shirt he had put on just before fetching her. Her eyes were closed tightly, she did not want to see this.

Daniel stepped onto the gangway and started walking down. He occasionally told her where they were. Halfway down, three quarters already. Just before the last steps, the wind caught Rayko’s dress. It hooked behind something and a loud tearing noise was heard. Daniel felt how Rayko stiffened in his arms. He walked on as the damage was done already and put her on her feet.

Venom shot from her eyes. She looked at her dress and the tear was considerable. “Now look what you’ve done, you incompetent little man!” The fact that he stood two heads taller than she did was not the issue. “Argghh…” Very angry, she turned and walked off. Alas… too fast for her footwear. Four steps down she slipped and tripped.

Daniel, who was closest to her, quickly went over to her. “Are you okay?”

“Don’t you dare touch me, you imbecile! Go away! Leave me! Mr. Slindris, please get this incompetent away from me!”

Daniel got up and looked at Gaguran. He shrugged and backup off as the man approached and helped Rayko to her feet.

Fuming, she hobbled off on Gaguran’s arm, scrambled into the carriage and she drove off.

Gaguran waited for the luggage to be loaded. As he stood there, he turned to Daniel. “That, Mr. Zacharias, was highly unfortunate.”

“She slipped, Mr. Slindris.”

“I saw that. Still…”

Daniel could almost taste the repressed pleasure Gaguran had over the incident. “I wish you a good day, sir. I have duties to attend to.” He nodded and paced away, not waiting for a greeting from the serving man.

After all his work on board was done, he asked Ulaman what the plan was.

“You take a few days, Daniel. We’ll be sailing in a few days again. Big trip then, I think. I will notify you when we need you sooner.”

Daniel went to get his stuff. He grabbed a quick shower and changed into a suit. Enough people had been staring at him for one day, so if this would make things easier, so be it. Dressed and his bag in hand, he walked down the gangway. As he was almost down, he saw a strip of fabric flapping from a ring. “Crap,” he stated as he ripped it from the ring and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Daniel.”

He knew the voice. Then he saw Rhonda walking up to him. She was in her regular camouflage outfit. “Rhonda?”

“The one and only. Man, you look…” She smothered a grin. “Different.”

“What are you doing here? I mean, why are you here?” Daniel was stumped; he had not expected to ever see the Head Medical Officer again.

“I took a bit of leave and came over to see how you were doing. The folks here do dress up weird, Daniel. They even got you. They’re staring at me all the time.”

“Guess why I wear this,” Daniel said, patting his sleeve. “It stops the staring. Come, I was going home. Care to join me?”

They walked along the buildings to the exit of the harbour where Daniel used his hydger to call for a carriage.

Rhonda curiously eyed the device as he used it. “That looks odd.”

“Gets the job done though.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Say, what was that scene with you carrying ladies down and getting kicked in the butt for that?”

Daniel groaned. “Have you seen that?”

“Yep, and I want to know all about it.”

A carriage rolled to a halt. Daniel held the door for Rhonda. “After you.”

“Daniel Zacharias, is that really you in there? You scare me!”

On the way to his apartment, Daniel told Rhonda about the happening with the Seigner’s daughter and how all that had not gone all too smoothly.

“Be glad she’s not on the ship all the time. One of you would die,” Rhonda declared as they were in the elevator to Daniel’s floor. “Fancy housing here, Daniel.”

He showed her into the room where she looked around as he put away his things.

“Wow, that is a view here! Really blows the star base out of the water, Daniel!”

He came back and saw Rhonda still in front of the window. “I know. That is really great about this place. That and it’s cheap.”

“Obviously.”

“Let me take you out to dinner, Rhonda. It is too nice a day to be spending in here,” Daniel suggested.

Rhonda frowned. “Do you think that’s smart? Do you want to be seen with someone like me?”

“They already saw us, so who cares. I do think we could fix you up, though.”

“Fix me up?”

-=-=-

“This is one hundred percent insane, Daniel.” Rhonda stood outside the dress rental shop and regarded herself in the reflection of the window. “Just let no one on star base hear about this…”

She wore a simple grey dress. Her hair was kept under control by a hairnet and crowned by a small grey hat with a white feather. Her own clothes were in a large shoulder bag that still fit with her costume. The change was dramatic. Rhonda looked like a woman.

“My lady, would you accompany me?” Daniel held up his arm.

“What?” Rhonda stared for a moment. “Oh. Right.”

Arm in arm they walked into the street, getting lost in the crowds that all were looking for a place to sit and eat. Daniel knew where to go, and soon they sat in a small booth, separated from the larger seating area. Daniel had ordered a nice wine, the order for the food was out also.

“This is so different, Daniel. And the scary bit is that you fit in here.” Rhonda sipped her wine. “And this is really good, as far I know something of wine.”

Daniel nodded, drank from his wine also, and looked at Rhonda. “How are things on the base?”

“Okay. Nothing much happening so you don’t miss a lot. Troy got carted off to the shit planet, you know that? Right. Ludo turned around like a leaf after Troy left. Nice guy. Rudyer retired. Oh… I should not have mentioned that name, perhaps.”

Daniel frowned. The name of the general that had technically kicked him out of the service still sounded painful.

“Captain Chambers has taken over his place, he got promoted tremendously.”

“Oh, that’s good.” Daniel remembered Chambers. “Glad to hear that. If you see him, please give him my regards.”

“My regards,” Rhonda echoed. “You never said you were born here and just snuck out to the base, Daniel.” She grinned and finished her glass of wine.

During dinner, they had several more glasses of wine and talked about everything they could think of. Rhonda really enjoyed herself and Daniel felt as if he had never been so relaxed since he had arrived on NGC6637-VIII.

As they were sipping the best cognac-ish drink the restaurant had to offer, Daniel settled the bill with his ring. Rhonda was amazed by the simplicity of the system.

They walked back to the street where Daniel could summon a carriage. “Can I take you somewhere, Rhonda?”

“I think you can… Wait…” She dug around in the shoulder bag. “Dammit, where is the stupid bloody- oh, here it is.” She held up a cable. “I thought you might like to…”

Daniel stared at the cable as if it was something entirely alien to him. “You brought one?”

“Of course,” she said as she put it back in her bag. “As my dear mother used to say: never leave home without one.”

Daniel laughed along with her. “You had a really clever mother, Rhonda Flower.” He pulled out the hydger and called for a carriage.

They went into the apartment. They needed no light. Clothes fell, Bactine bodies connected, and the cable slipped into connectors. They spent most of the evening and part of the night making love in that amazing way that left them both drained.

-=-=-

Daniel woke up. He knew, before he had his eyes open, that Rhonda was not lying next to him. He got up and found her looking out the window, the morning light painting the town and the harbour in soft pastels. He slipped his arms around her.

“No, Daniel. Don’t.” She slowly pushed his arms away, yet remained standing against him, looking outside. “You know this won’t work. Not with us.”

“I know. But holding you feels good.”

“Okay then. Hold me. But that’s all.”

Daniel wrapped his arms around her again, but the moment was gone and lost forever. After a few minutes he let go. “I really want to thank you, Rhonda. For visiting me.”

Rhonda turned and leaned against the wall next to the window. “I wanted to. Just a visit. To check on you. My privilege, since I reconstructed you.” She grinned. “It’s good to see you again. Too bad I have to go again.”

“I still have a few days off, Rhonda,” Daniel said.

“That’s good for you. I have to leave today, Daniel.” She walked to the table with the shoulder bag, pulled out her clothes and put them on. “Thank you, for a wonderful dinner. For renting the dress. And the night I got to spend here.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

She shook her head, sending her short black hair dancing. “No. I would appreciate it if you could call me one of those carts and program it for the Embargo plaza or whatever the place is. I get frustrated spelling out the numbers that the thing doesn’t understand.”

“You mean the Embarcado Circle,” Daniel grinned. “Yes, I will do that. And I’ll pay the fare for you.” He got dressed.

Rhonda folded the dress and put it in the shoulder bag, together with the hairnet and the little hat. She chuckled as she looked at it for a last time.

Daniel picked up the bag and escorted Rhonda downstairs, where he called for a carriage. In silence they waited until it arrived, and Rhonda got in.

“Thanks for everything, Daniel,” she said as he set the destination for her using the hydger.

Just as he left the carriage, she quickly kissed his cheek. Then the door closed and the carriage pulled away into the traffic.

Daniel stared after it until it was lost in the hustle and bustle. Something inside him rolled over and scratched in a most painful way. He looked at the bag in his hand. He turned and started walking towards the dress rental shop, the scratches getting worse with every step.

18. Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy

Daniel woke up after a short night. Sleep had forgotten to attend. He had been thinking about too many things. He had kicked himself, for not going after Rhonda. He also knew that she would have kicked him if he had, so the end result was all the same.

He got up and stood at the window where Rhonda had been not even so long ago. It was still dark, the city lights were still on and the stars were bright this morning. Night.

“This, man, sucks rocks like a black hole,” Daniel told his mirror image in the window. His image agreed in silence.

Daniel showered, dressed and walked outside. He strolled through the silent streets, his thoughts churning over the last evening. This was not what he wanted, he was certain of that. He felt certain that Malcolm was either a fool or had never had all his marbles. He even wondered if Cynthia was doing the right thing with her boyfriends. And still, whenever the train of his thoughts stopped at the station called Rhonda, there was this tweak. Why hadn’t he gone after her?

Suddenly Daniel found himself at the harbour. “Workaholic,” he muttered.

Affairs at the harbour were going on as usual, ships needed to be loaded, goods needed to be moved, so there was a lot going on. Daniel walked onto the yard and watched the people work. Then he would walk on and watch another group. Curiosity drew him to another part of the harbour this time. He knew there was another arm where more eight masted clippers were moored, so he turned his steps toward it.

The part of the harbour he came to was as large as the side he knew. Nine ships the size of the Pricosine lay there, tugging at the ropes, wanting to go and play on the water. There was room for four more. Daniel studied a few of the ships in the dusky light and was satisfied that he could recognise some differences between them. The shape of the rigging, the curve of the bow at the waterline, the height of the stern. He knew he still wasn’t much of a sailor, but the few trips he had made for now had taught him a lot already. Ulaman had since long not called him a landlubber anymore.

“Good morning, Seigner,” a voice said.

Daniel looked, to find a man with a cane walking up to him. “Good morning to you too, Seigner.”

The man approaching was remarkably big and round-bellied. He had long curly brown hair and a round nose. His moustache stood out from his face like giant whiskers. “Dogom ko Tzuy. May I enquire after your name?”

“Daniel Zacharias. Nice to meet you, Seigner.” They shook hands.

“Zacharias. Yes. I have heard the name. Seigner Skinsh ko Talush mentioned you. You are on the Pricosine, is that right?”

Daniel nodded. “Indeed.”

“Seigner Dandra ko Galem speaks highly of you.”

Daniel grinned. Either the man had not heard about the mishap with Clelem’s daughter the other day, or daughter dear had not mentioned it to her Daddy. “I am delighted to hear that.”

Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy pointed at the ship they were standing for. “This is one of mine. The Tzuy number three.”

Daniel had seen the name on the ship’s bow already. “And where are number one and two, if I may ask?” He knew that some ship owners preferred to be secretive about the whereabouts of their ships.

Huajo was not one of them. “Number one is on a long journey. They should return in approximately two months. Number two… unfortunately, that fell victim to pirates. The very reason you are here.”

So the threat was real. Daniel had wondered a bit about it, as he had not seen any sign of pirates so far. He wondered how a band of pirates would master such an enormous ship.

“The pirates, Mr. Zacharias, are a fearless band. They fight like a demon is inside them, they ram our ships and they carry, I have heard, the most impossible array of weapons.”

“I had already suggested placing weapons on the Pricosine, but Seigner Dandra ko Galem did not want to hear of that.”

“Oh, we cannot do that,” Huajo said. “The Ship Owners Society claims, in its manifests, that merchant ships are to remain peaceful and neutral all the time.”

“That does not really make sense,” Daniel remarked. “Neutrality I can see, but when you go out into waters where there are pirates, then peaceful has to go overboard at a certain point. There is a difference between going after someone and beating someone off who tries to attack you.”

Huajo sighed. “I have tried to convince Skinsh ko Talush of the same, Mr. Zacharias, but the man is old and hard to move from his old points of view.” He put a hand on Daniel’s forearm for a moment. “I may not say this, but… if ever you feel like you need to expand your horizons, young man, do not hesitate to call on me. I have room for someone with fresh ideas like yours, and I have many ships that need protection.”

Daniel considered the man’s words. “I am honestly flattered by your suggestion, Seigner Dogom ko Tsuy. And I will remember your words. But I am still here on assignment from the Spacial High Command. I can’t switch jobs just like that. And I do feel at home on the Pricosine.”

Huajo nodded and smiled understandingly. “I am sure you do, Mr. Zacharias. And your feeling towards your position is commendable. But do allow me to hand you my hydger information. I do assume Seigner Dandra ko Galem gave you one?”

“In fact it was Seigner Skinsh ko Talush,” Daniel said as he took his hydger. “I assume that I will not get in trouble if Seigner Dandra ko Galem finds out I have your information?

Huajo picked a locket from his coat pocket. “Not at all. We all carry each other’s information, Mr. Zacharias. After all, in case of an emergency we do have to be able to contact each other quickly.”

This made sense to Daniel.

“Well, sir, do enjoy the view of my ships. I should be moving on again, my poor legs have a problem keeping me up lately. I bid you a nice day.”

“Have a good day, Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy,” Daniel said as the large man walked off. Losing a few pounds would do you good, old man, he thought. Then he wondered why this man was up so early and wandered around the harbour in the dark.

He watched Huajo disappear into the shades of a building; the man was clearly in pain as he heavily leaned on his cane.

Daniel walked around over the pier for a while longer, taking in the ships. He would love to have a look aboard, to see the differences and the similarities. He grinned to himself. He might yet become a sailor. Then he started off towards the Pricosine. Since he was near, he might just as well have a look there.

As he came close to the Pricosine, he was surprised again. Instead of a silent ship, there was a lot of action going about already. Ulaman’s voice rang from the deck, another man was clearly arguing with the captain. At the gangway Daniel found two unknown men who asked who he was and what his business might be. It took him a lot of convincing that he was a crew member. Only his threat to use the hydger and get in touch with Mr. Slindris or even Seigner Dandra ko Galem made the two give in, so he charged up to the deck.

“Daniel,” Xandree said who was on deck also. “Here please.”

Daniel saw Ulaman standing almost nose to nose with a man in a beige suit and a dark shirt. Very strange combination, he thought. Then he stepped to where Xandree was, leaning against the bridge house. “What is this?”

Xandree shrugged. “This man says he has the right to be on board and verify the contents of all compartments. Ulaman asked him for identification which the man refuses.”

“Does this happen often?”

“No.”

Daniel did not wait for an invitation: he went over and stood next to Ulaman, towering over the two. “Good morning, Ulaman. What is the matter here?”

“Daniel. Why are you here?”

“Bad night, nothing important.”

The man in beige glared up at the security man. “And who are you?”

“Daniel Zacharias, in charge of security on this ship. And you are?”

“My name is not important,” the beige suit snapped at him. “I have orders to check the ship.”

“Orders from whom?”

“That is none of your business.” The beige suit assumed a very hostile stance, as if he wanted to box Daniel off the ship.

“Daniel, stand down,” Ulaman said, “this has nothing to do with you, I am sure.”

“This man here wants business on the ship, captain, and I am here to safeguard it. So it is my business. If he can’t show evidence why he is here, he has no business here.”

Ulaman looked at the man in beige. “Mr. Zacharias is right. I command you to leave the ship, before you will be forcefully removed. Sir.”

“You would not dare,” the beige suit hissed.

“Do you want to find out?” Daniel said as he took off his coat. He put his hand on the shoulder of the man and pushed down ever so gently.

The man resisted the pressure, but he was no match for Bactine and enhanced muscles. He pulled his shoulder from Daniel’s hand and stepped back. “You will regret this, mister. Your size does not impress me, nor does your strength. You will be sorry.” The man turned and paced off, leaving the ship.

Ulaman’s face showed relief and also worry. “I am not sure if we did the right thing, Daniel.”

“If something goes wrong, blame me. I physically challenged the man, Ulaman. It’s my job.”

They went into the galley where Xandree made some strong sturt, the coffee replacement.

Daniel again evaded the question about his presence. He blamed it on some insomnia biting his heels, which was accepted as a valid reason. “And a good thing your insomnia happened this morning,” Xandree commented.

They sat and talked while the morning was unfolding. Suddenly Ulaman’s hydger started its noise. He took it, frowned at the display and went outside to take the call, leaving Xandree and Daniel wondering. When he came back, he said: “The Seigner wants to see me. He is sending the mouse over to pick me up.”

“Do you know why?” Daniel asked the captain. “Anything to do with the incident this morning?”

“He did not say. He did not look or sound annoyed, but then, he is very good at that. We’ll see.”

“Call me if you need help, Ulaman,” said Daniel.

“I will.”

When the mouse, Mr. Gaguran Slindris, arrived, several crewmen had come aboard to do maintenance on the ship. They all stood at the railing, watching Ulaman walk off with the Seigner’s serving man to where a carriage would be waiting.

The crewmen had already heard about the mysterious visitor that had left in ill spirits and the guessing game was on, of course. Everything from a secret inspector to a spy was brought up as a possible option. The crew was finally chased off to work by Xandree. Daniel grinned to see how her mere presence had a big influence on the crew. One word from her was worth a hundred light-hearted threats from Ulaman.

Daniel excused himself and headed up to the silent bridge. He walked around it, watching the area from up there. Inside he watched the maps and the ship’s logs, written in Xandree’s tiny hand.

The incident of the morning worried him. The early morning presence of Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy worried him also. The way his thought dragged him back to Rhonda worried him most. Not at ease with himself he stumbled down the stairs to the deck and went to find Xandree. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course. What’s eating away at you?” The woman had an uncanny eye for that.

Daniel told her about meeting Huajo early that morning.

Xandree looked at Daniel for a while before speaking. “Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy often is out there. He is an insomniac. The ghost winds alone know how he survives without sleeping normally. He is also troubled by the pain in his bones. Everyone knows about him. And Daniel… if you need to talk about the other thing, you can talk to me too.”

“What other thing?”

“The reason you did not sleep this night. You always sleep. There is something that kept you from it, and that is a worry. It is not good to carry your worry around. Talk about it, to get it out of your way.” She looked Daniel in the eye. “Your secret is safe with me. If you want to talk.”

Daniel nodded. “You are right. There is something that’s bothering me.” He sighed. “I may take you up on your offer. Thank you.”

Xandree nodded. “I’ll be here to listen, Daniel.”

19. Under sail again

Ulaman and Xandree had almost had to beat Daniel off the ship in the days that the Pricosine was being loaded up. Daniel had become paranoid for a while, with the encounter of the beige suit.

Ulaman had explained that he’d had a good talk with the Seigner. It had nothing to do with the stranger; instead they had discussed Daniel and his work. “The Seigner seems satisfied with you, Daniel. You will be stuck with us for a while longer. He said he will confer with the president of the Society if they should bring in more people like you.”

Daniel was relieved to hear that Clelem had not mentioned a thing about the incidents around his daughter being on board.

“Bring up the gangway!” Ulaman yelled into his tube. “We’re leaving!”

The crew worked their routine, and soon the Pricosine’s bow pointed towards the wide open ocean again. Daniel stood at the bow, enjoying the freedom. The wind bashed at his head and took all the troubled thinking away from him. They were heading for the city of Cathru with a load of wheat, half a cargo bay filled with jugs of wine and a stack of large chests containing household merchandise.

The first day went by with the only thing worth mentioning being fabulous progress. The Pricosine was cutting through the water at phenomenal speeds. Compared to a shuttle, Daniel considered, this meant nothing, but the thrill of seeing the water speed by, seeing the water’s wildlife rush by, that was something you could never experience in space.

At the end of the second day, Ulaman called Daniel up to the bridge. “I should tell you that overnight we are entering the part of the ocean that gives us most trouble. The pirates are very active here, so sleep quickly and be awake.”

This was not the news Daniel hoped for, but he was glad he was prepared. He thanked the skipper and went to lie down. He was up and dressed long before dusk. He was wearing his military uniform, which was loaded with material he might need for combat. He’d had to become creative: the chemical substances from the water had rendered most of his normal weapons useless.

He was walking the watch, Brinno walking with him. The sailor’s trained eyes were scary. “Daniel, there.” Brinno pointed to the far distance where the faintest of light was. “Another ship.”

“Pirates?”

“No. They don’t attack at night.”

“Right. Good to know.”

Pirates attacked when a large ship was cornering a difficult strait with a treacherous current, Daniel learnt. He was not sure where the ship suddenly came from; it could have fallen from the skies for all he knew. The cries from the crew were clear enough though. As the Pricosine came out of the strait, the short grey ship was upon them. Its sails had the colour of the water and from its bow protruded a kind of ram that approached the hull of the Pricosine at speed.

Lidrin, on the bridge, cursed his entire vocabulary out loud as he tried to turn the giant ship in an attempt to make the damage as small as possible. Avoiding the ram, he knew, would be impossible. This was all he could do.

Daniel ran to where the pirate ship would reach the Pricosine first, blessing his enhanced body for making it a quick trip. As he reached the spot, the ram dug itself into the hull, making the large ship shudder. Several sailors toppled over as the impact was harder than was expected. Daniel spotted men up in the assailant ship’s masts, swinging blocks on ropes, throwing them over to the rigging over his head. The men swung over to the Pricosine, uttering loud screams. The first one to land on the deck was close to Daniel and had every reason to regret that. Daniel drove his armoured fist into the man’s chest and did not even take the time to watch his victim fall.

A total of thirteen men swung over from the pirate ship. Daniel noticed that there was a small positive thing about their attacked: it was focussed on one spot, so there was no need to protect the whole ship. It also delivered the problem however that the attack was fierce and massive.

The sailors fought well. Daniel however made all the difference. Even when one of the pirates, who had landed high up in a mast, threw down handsful of some strange dust that made the sailors sneeze and gasp for air, Daniel continued the battle. His body simply shut off the intake of external substances and functioned on the air in the pockets of his arms and legs.

He grabbed a piece of rope and flung it upwards. It hit the pirate in the stomach. The man’s descent to deck was fast and ended hard. Only three pirates remained, and they made their way back to their ship. Daniel watched them go. Going after them was an option, but he was curious what they were going to do. The battle was won, after all.

The pirates quickly released a kind of bolt at the front of their ship which unlocked the ram. The current that came from the strait immediately pushed them away from the Pricosine and seconds later the gap was already larger than a man would be able to jump.

Daniel turned and looked at the state of the men who had fought so well. Nine of them were wounded but able to walk. Ulaman, who had left the bridge, was covered in red spots, clearly coming from the now dead pirate that lay at his feet. The other men were not injured at all, as by some miracle.

As they started to tend to the wounded, a loud noise, as the tearing of wood, made Daniel look up. He walked to the side of the ship and was just in time to see the remains of the ram fall into the water. It had left a large, gaping hole in the hull, just above the waterline.

“Ulaman, we have a problem,” he said.

The captain agreed. “We have to do something about this. If we leave this the way it is, the scum only has to wait for heavy weather and they can fish us up for ransom. Or worse.”

“Will we have that chance?”

“In this area the weather is almost as unpredictable as-” the captain looked for Xandree “-a woman.”

“That bad,” Daniel understood. His mind was already running. “We’re to fix that. Have Bilk and Stroro bring hammers and nails or whatever you use to fix up a ship.”

“Daniel, don’t be a fool, we have not enough material on board to fix a hole that big.”

“Just you wait.” Daniel ran off and made his way into the cargo bay that held the large Polychlon chests and trunks. He methodically started to tear up four of them that would supply the largest pieces. He hauled them up and dropped them onto the deck, where Ulaman stared.

“Where did you- Don’t tell me-”

“Don’t ask, Ulaman.”

The men put together two pieces of plating that should be large enough to cover the hole. As one group went below deck, making space in the cargo bay so they could reach the opening from the inside, Ulaman arranged for a life boat to be lowered.

One man was up in the mast, keeping an eye out for the pirates, but they were not to be seen. Daniel and Brinno lowered themselves into the life boat and waited for the second plate to be lowered towards them. They manoeuvred the boat to the opening and started to close it from the outside.

A wave hit the life boat as Daniel was reaching out to make the last connection, which threw him off balance and into the water. Brinno helped him scramble into the boat and they laughed, despite the situation.

It did not take them long to close the hole from the outside, and as Daniel had changed into dry clothes again, the men who had worked on the inside had also done their best there.

Ulaman had gone in also, and assessed the situation. “We can’t go on like this. I dare only hope we make it back home with that patch.” So the ship was turned, the route around the strait was plotted as there was no way they would be able to sail up the stream, and they started the journey back.

As they were going, Daniel was extra alert for another attack. Another of those, with the ship damaged like this, and several men down, would be a terrible thing. There also was a continuous watch in the cargo bay to see if they were taking in water. Buckets were already in place for that occasion. At one time during the trip back, the life boat was lowered again, as the outside patch was loosening because of the constant beating it got from the water. By then they had reached relative safety though, being not too far from shore.

Pirates would not attempt anything here, Ulaman assured Daniel who remained vigilant despite that. The fact they had never done it so far did not mean they never would. Nothing happened, though.

“After the night we’re almost back,” the captain said. “Half a day at best then. The Seigner will not be happy we failed to deliver the cargo, but at least the ship’s not gone under.”

That was something to be grateful for, Daniel agreed.

Towards the evening Daniel felt sick. It felt like a fever was spreading inside him and he could not explain it. The people around him noticed that he was doing poorly also and commented on it, suggesting he should hit his bunk. He agreed eagerly and staggered down to his cabin, tumbling onto the bed.

Not much later Xandree and Ulaman came down to see him. Xandree had tea with her, and her small medical kit. The tea was the best she had to offer though, nothing in her kit seemed to be the cure for Daniel’s situation.

Ulaman thought it was the fact he had fallen into the sea. “Those chemicals do rotten things, Daniel. You should be okay in a few days.”

“I hope so. Don’t like this a bit,” the ex-soldier muttered. The tea made things more bearable for him, and Draiky the cook made it her personal mission to supply him with copious amounts of it, sitting by his bed and talking with him if he was not sleeping.

As he drifted in and out of sleep, the Pricosine reached port. Daniel was aware of people coming into his cabin and lifting him out on a stretcher. As they were carrying him up the stairs, Stroro’s voice warning someone to be careful or else, he passed out again.

“Mr. Zacharias? Can you hear me?” The voice was gentle and female.

“Yes, I can.” Daniel was quite certain. He opened his eyes slowly and stared at a friendly face with brown eyes and a white cap in tucked back dark hair. Beyond the face everything was white.

“Wonderful, Mr. Zacharias. Good to have you with us,” the nurse smiled.

Daniel was not so sure about that, but probably she was more coherent than he was.

“How are you feeling, Mr. Zacharias?”

“Somewhat better. Not so hot,” he determined. “A bit numb too.”

The nurse looked away from him. He tried to follow her gaze and discovered that he couldn’t. It was as if his head was held down by something, like an anvil. “I am in a hospital, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” said the nurse, her attention back with him. “You are taken care of as well as we are able to, sir.”

Somehow this did not fill Daniel with a lot of confidence. “What’s wrong with me?”

Another voice, male, spoke. The owner of that, a balding man with a short white beard, bent over him. “You are packed in ice, Mr. Zacharias. We have to admit that we are not all certain with respect to the cause of your affliction. It may have to do with the rather unusual substance your body is made of, so we have contacted your seniors in order to determine a treatment.”

Daniel slowly blinked. He noticed how sluggish it was. “Don’t give me the medical careful routine, doctor. Please, what is going on?” He did not feel like politeness now.

“To put it bluntly, sir, you seem to be falling apart.”

20. Bactine

Daniel heard the words. Somehow they left him as cold has his ice-covered body was.

“It looks that keeping you in ice is slowing down the process, sir.” The doctor looked at him. “I am sorry, sir, you asked for this information.”

Daniel hoped he nodded. “I know. What are my chances?”

“We are not certain.”

“Let me in, you runt, I know him! And I’m here on business!”

Daniel’s heart jumped. Seconds later it did so again: Rhonda’s face appeared in his view.

“Gods, you look like crap,” she greeted him. Her face was hard. She started to push ice to the side and examined Daniel.

Daniel waited for her to say something, but she remained silent during the time she was looking him over.

“I need to talk to people, Daniel. I’ll be back soon. I promise.” Rhonda looked at him, this time in an emotional way he had never thought possible for her. She touched his forehead, then she left, taking the doctor with her.

The nurse started packing the ice onto him again, and the lights faded.

-=-=-

“Daniel? Daniel, can you hear me? Give him some more. Daniel?”

He crawled out of the grey fog. “I hear you.” Slowly his eyesight came back. “Hey, you.”

Rhonda stood watching him. “Hey yourself. I heard what a mess you got yourself in. You never grow up, do you? Playing pirate and going for a swim.”

“Seems that’s needed to get you back here,” he tried to grin. There was no feedback from his face whether the attempt had succeeded.

“You’re an idiot. Daniel, I need to talk to you and please listen carefully. It’s getting harder to keep you awake.”

At least she did not say ‘alive’, Daniel thought.

“We think to know what is happening to you, Daniel. Your friends from the boat said-”

“Ship” Daniel said.

“What? Oh, stop that. Your friends from the… ship said that you all were sprayed by something that made everyone sneeze. I assume you sealed yourself from it, because I found some of that stuff inside your Bactine parts, or what is remaining of them. It looks as if that stuff combined with the ocean water here is severely…”

“Daniel? Are you with us?”

“What? Oh. Yes.” Daniel had not noticed that he had been unconscious again.

“Damn that stuff,” Rhonda said. “I’ll have to be quick. The stuff of the pirates and the ocean water degrades and finally dissolves the Bactine. We have to operate on you or you’ll die. We can’t take you back to the star base for a new Bactine transplant. It is too far away, and also it’s never been done before. Daniel… stay with us… We are going to operate on you…”

-=-=-

There was pain. Not a deep and screaming pain, but a dull and throbbing one. It was everywhere. Daniel groaned softly and wished he hadn’t. It triggered some more pain, in his throat.

“Mr. Zacharias? Are you awake? Try and move a finger, sir, if you can hear me. Don’t try to speak, that will be too painful.”

“Okay.” Argh, she was right. He moved a finger.

“That is wonderful, Mr. Zacharias. Very good. Now, just relax. I am going to remove the covers and put more oil on your body, sir. It will help the recovery.”

While Daniel still was working on the meaning of her words, he felt a rush of cool air flowing over him.

“Keep your eyes closed, sir, please. I will start with your face.” Gentle, soft hands and fingers touched his face, and a warm slick sensation spread over his face. The dull pain seemed to yield to whatever it was the woman did.

Slowly and skilfully she worked his whole face, his shoulders and his chest, down to his abdomen. “I am now going to oil your private area, sir. Don’t worry, I will be gentle.”

Daniel, halfway dozing, wondered about her remark. His genitals had disappeared as he had been put inside the Bactine body and-… His mind froze for a moment as the feelings that rushed up to his brain told him something that could not be. Then another sensation, one he had not had for a long time, told him something else.

“Oh,” the woman said. “Not to worry, sir, that happens at times..”

Daniel had an erection. The impossibility of this puzzled him so much that he did not even felt how the woman oiled his legs and covered him again. She said something.

“What? I beg your pardon… I did not hear you.”

“You will be feeling better soon, sir. I’m taking my leave now, another nurse will come to sit with you.”

She left, leaving Daniel in wonder. She returned again also, to oil him again.

“How are you feeling today, Mr. Zacharias?”

“Much better already, thank you, miss.” Daniel could speak again without pain. Also most of the pain in his body had gone, save the odd tweak and throb.

“Very good, sir. I shall be oiling you again, and after that we will see if you can sit up.” As she was oiling him, this time without the embarrassing situation, she told him that there had been people asking for him. “Alas, you are not allowed visitors yet, but they said they will return as soon as they may see you.”

“I wonder, miss, if you can tell me what has happened to me?” Daniel asked. He had asked the other nurses too, but they had simply said they could not tell him.

“The medical team, assisted by the rather unladylike woman doctor have removed the material that was your other body, sir, and you have been restored in Glandrine. Do you know what Glandrine is?”

Glandrine. “Yes. Some people sort of explained it to me. Uhm. Thank you.” Glandrine. “So they used Glandrine to fix me?”

“Yes, sir.” She pulled the covers over him. “Now, do you think you want to try and sit up?”

Daniel was all in favour. He had been on his back forever, and bored out of his mind by the white ceiling. As she helped him up, his body screamed from all pores, but he was sitting. Such a relief.

“That was quite good, sir,” the nurse smiled. She put a small mountain of pillows behind his back. “You can lean back now. Careful, sir.”

Cold fire ran over his back for a moment as he sunk into the pillows, then it felt all good.

“You must be hungry, sir. I’ll see that a tray of food is brought to you.” Quickly she left the room.

Daniel looked at the dresser against the wall opposite him. Then he looked in the large mirror that hung over it. He scared himself. His face was black and blue, as if a herd of cows had taken a stroll over it. He pulled the cover down, to discover that his whole body was in that shape. And he stared at the penis.

A knock on the door made him cover himself again, quickly. A nurse carrying an insanely large tray came in. “Good afternoon, Mr. Zacharias. We heard you would fancy some food. Here is a starter for you. Do let us know if you are in need of something. You only have to pull the cord here by your bed.”

He had the tray, which had short legs, on his bed in an instant. The nurse had left before he could respond. The smell of food made him forget that. He attacked it.

-=-=-

A gentle knock on the door. “Mr. Zacharias?” a nurse asked as she opened the door. “Ah… you are awake. Do you think you can see some visitors, sir?”

After three days of nurses, Daniel could certainly do with some other company. He was glad that most of the bruised colours on his new skin had gone away. He was a strange shade of blue still, but the nurses and the doctor had assured him that would settle itself once he was up and moving about.

To his surprise, Ulaman, Xandree and Draiky came in.

The three kept a respecting distance to him, something he did not understand, until Xandree explained that the nurses had told them to do so. “We should not chance to touch you, as your skin is healing.”

They told him that the repairs on the Pricosine were going well. “In a few days we will be taking her out for a test again. And you are supposed to stay in bed for that, Daniel,” said Ulaman.

“The doctor said you will be fine, Daniel. And you will be fit to sail with us again.” Draiky sounded very happy about that, and Daniel was glad to hear it. He missed the ship already.

“The Seigner asked me to tell you he is very sorry about what happened, Daniel. He is very busy, so he could not come to visit you. He does regret that,” Ulaman also told him.

Daniel told the visitors what he had learnt about his mishap. They all nodded, probably not understanding everything, but he felt that they had to know at least. They had done all they could to pull him through.

Their visit was short, but Daniel felt good about them having come to see him. It meant a lot to them.

“Next time I want to see you on the ship again, my friend,” said Ulaman.

When he was alone again, Daniel felt better than he had done in days.

The next morning, a doctor came to see him and this time the man had time to talk to Daniel.

“I am sure you are wondering about many things, Mr. Zacharias.” He got that right.

Daniel learnt that Rhonda and the local surgeons had worked on him for many hours. “The knowledge of the anatomy of a person that your doctor Flower possesses is amazing.” In turn, they had surprised Rhonda by reengineering Daniel’s genitals, something that the doctor was especially proud of.

“I am very grateful for that, doctor,” Daniel said.

“It was our privilege to be of service, sir,” the man brushed all praise away. “Most of your physique that is under the skin has remained intact, so your strength should be close to what it was. Doctor Flower also asked us to inform you that the air pockets in your limbs are still present, but you cannot use them to breathe through anymore. Concessions had to be made.”

Daniel understood that. He was very sharply aware that he could have been dead without ever having know it. “Doctor… How was it possible that you could reach Rhon- doctor Flower so quickly?”

“She was on the planet, so that was easy. Do you have any more questions? You should rest now.” The man got up.

Daniel’s head was in turmoil. “She was still on the planet? Uhm, no, I’m… I have no more questions. Thank you, doctor.”

The patient kept wondering about Rhonda for the rest of the day…

The next morning a nurse came in, holding a rattling box. “Mr. Zacharias, it sounds as if someone is trying to reach you.”

“Thank you, nurse,” Daniel said, and opened the device. The call was from Tomlin Barker.

“Daniel, man-” Tomlin fell silent as he saw Daniel’s face. “Good grief, man, what happened to you?”

Daniel gave him the nutshell version of recent events, which was enough for Tomlin to drop what he was doing and rush over to the hospital.

“Holy fucking shit, Daniel,” Tomlin said after fighting his way past a few stern nurses, “you look like crap!”

Daniel grinned. It was long ago that he had heard such language and it was surprisingly refreshing. “And a good day to you too, Seigner Barker,” he joked. “Please don’t make me laugh, that still hurts.”

Tomlin pulled up a chair. “Now tell me again. You were not really making sense on the box. You said pirates?”

Daniel nodded and told him the longer version.

His friend stared at him. “And they brought you here for that kind of fun, right? Aren’t you the lucky one.” Tomlin shook his head. “And when are you leaving?”

Daniel shrugged carefully. “I don’t know. They have not told me when I am released from this place. I’d love to get out on the ship again, but I know it’s not time for me yet.”

“The ship.” Tomlin got to his feet and paced the room while keeping his eyes on Daniel. “The ship? You got all ripped up, wrapped up in that Glandrine stuff they have here, you’re obviously still in plenty of pain, and you want to get your hiney back on that boat?” He stopped his pacing. “Are you out of your bloody mind? If it were up to me I’d get the next carriage to Embarcado and hightail it out of here.”

“Perhaps. But it is not up to you, Tomlin.” Daniel grimaced as he reached for his glass of water. “It’s up to me, and I want to get back to the ship.”

Tomlin grinned and calmed down. The talk became more peaceful. When he had to leave again, he said: “Let me know when you get home again, Daniel. I’ll come and pick you up. You should meet my family.”

Daniel promised he would to that and thanked his old friend for coming by. He really was pleased with the visit.

Two days of getting up and exercising later the nurses told him that he was declared well and fit, and that by the afternoon he was allowed to return home. After lunch, someone delivered a package, which turned out to be a brand new set of clothes. The card attached stated that it was a gift from Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem. He got dressed, surprised about the gift as well as his, once again, new body. He did not understand why someone went through such effort to keep him alive.

There was a modest knock on the door.

“Please come in.”

Daniel almost fell back on the bed when he saw Gaguran Slindris enter. “Mr. Zacharias. Ah. I see the attire that the Seigner sent over is satisfactory. He has asked me to see to it that you reach your home in safety. Are you ready to leave?”

Daniel had nothing to take along but his ring and his hydger. The things he had been wearing when the problems began had been torn from him in the hospital. “I am ready, sir. And I do appreciate the concern from the Seigner and you.”

“The Seigner was very worried, Mr. Zacharias.”

That statement told Daniel something.

As he followed Gaguran out the room, there were several of the nurses waiting in the hall. They had been taking care of him and wished him all the best in regaining his health again. Daniel thanked them and promised to look after himself.

Outside, a carriage was already waiting, so the two men could get in and ride off quickly. The journey to Daniel’s building passed mostly in silence, as Gaguran did not respond to most of Daniel’s remarks. If he did it was with a nod or a single word.

“Do take care, Mr. Zacharias.” The mouse said it as a formality, not as something he had actually put his heart in.

Daniel nodded and then watched the carriage roll off. He went into his apartment, sat on a chair and stared out the window. He wondered where Rhonda was. And why she had left without saying goodbye.

21. Invitations

Krrrrrr… Krrrrrrrr…

Daniel grabbed the hydger and saw Ulaman’s call sign. “Ulaman, best skipper of the planet, good morning.”

“Daniel, you are becoming a lazy heap. Are you still in your bed?”

“Looks like it, yes,” Daniel grinned.

Ulaman made a sound that conveyed disapproval. “The sun is already out. How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad. Still sore in places where the new skin takes longer to heal. Why, is something the matter?”

“Not really. The crew wants to know how you are. It would be good if you could come to the ship and talk to them. They worry about you. I told them they are wimps but they made me call you anyway.”

Daniel did not grin, but he knew Ulaman was hiding his own concern. Had the crew been there, he’d have heard it. “I will come to the harbour tomorrow, okay? A friend comes over today to pick me up and visit his family. Mr. Barker, I told you about him?”

“Yes, I remember. Well, I am glad that… the crew will be glad if you can come over tomorrow. There is nothing like smelling the water to get you back on your feet, Daniel. And let me know if you cannot come after all.”

“Certainly, skipper. I’ll let you know. But I am rather certain I can show up.”

“Good, Daniel. Now get up, man!” The big face grinned before the screen went grey.

Daniel laughed, winced as there was a sting from his belly, and dropped the hydger on the bed. “Ouch. Still no laughing today, Mr. Zacharias.” He got up and showered. He worshipped the shower since the surgery: it made his new skin soft and supple and chased the little pains away for a long time.

He got dressed and waited for his friend to show up, spending the time reading.

“Daniel? Are you in there?” The question was followed by a careful tap on the door. Tomlin grinned as Daniel let him in. “You look less bad today,” he stated. “Ready to go?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be. I am curious to see where you are living, Tomlin.”

The trip to Tomlin’s house did not take very long. It was located in one of the better neighbourhoods of Skarak.

Tomlin pointed out several places of interest and historical fame as they came past them. The carriage took them up into the mountainous area, where almost every residence had a magnificent outlook over the town, the harbour and the sea. Daniel had never been up there, so he was astounded by the view.

“We’re here, Daniel,” Tomlin said as the carriage slowed down. “Prepare yourself to be invaded by my offspring.”

After exiting the carriage, they stood in front of what in this area was an average sized house. Remarkable was the small building in front of it that Tomlin walked up to. He used his ring to open the door and let Daniel in. “Welcome to my humble home.”

It turned out to be far from humble. The small building turned out to be a sort of reception area and it had a wardrobe. From there, they walked through a short transparent tunnel that brought them into the actual house. Tomlin’s wife was a very friendly woman, and the offspring-based invasion Tomlin had warned Daniel for did not happen. Clearly the children, two boys and a girl, had been instructed very well about Daniel’s condition. They were very careful and, Daniel found, polite beyond limits.

He had a really nice day out with the Barker family, and when Tomlin took him back home in the evening, Daniel was yawning.

“My friend,” Tomlin grinned, “I think you have lost the ability to stay sober while drinking.”

It certainly felt so, Daniel had to admit. “Thank you for today, Tomlin. I really appreciate it. It was great to see where you live. You did the right thing, staying here. You have a lovely family.”

“I know. And thank you for the compliments. I’ll carry them on. Stay well, and in touch.” After shaking hands, Tomlin ordered the carriage to take him home again.

Daniel dragged himself to his apartment, could barely be bothered to hang up his suit and crashed into bed. He was out before his head had actually touched down on the pillow.

-=-=-

The next morning, Daniel was awake quite early, compared to the days before. After the relieving shower, which seemed less needed today, he dressed and went out for breakfast. It felt good, and he was pleased about that. It told him he was definitely on the mend.

As he left the restaurant, he called Ulaman. “I am on my way to the harbour now, Ulaman, but I come walking. The exercise is good for me, so it will take a while before I am there. I’m on my way, already.”

Ulaman clearly was happy with that news.

The walk was a nice one. The weather was glorious. His coat held away the teasing sea wind. His thoughts revolved around Tomlin, families, and Rhonda. But he felt so good that this time nothing seemed able to destroy his mood. Not even the thought of Malcolm that floated by.

When Daniel approached the harbour he smiled. There is nothing like smelling the water, Ulaman had said, and bugger it all, there was truth in his words. Soon the large super-clipper came into view and he started the climb up the long gangway. It cost him more effort than before, but he had already prepared for that. Slowing down was the solution.

Daniel stepped onto the deck. The men were working various chores and did not even seem to notice him, at first. He casually sauntered towards the staircase that led up to the bridge, when Darigyn caught sight of the man in the suit.

“DANIEL!!” The man’s voice thundered over the deck, and soon he was engulfed in sailors who all wanted to shake Daniel’s hand, something he appreciated but was not ready for yet, he knew. That made for a rather awkward greeting, but it all came out well.

He answered to a number of the question they fired at him, until Ulaman and Lidrin came down from the bridge and liberated him from all the attention.

Xandree had gone down to the galley and brought Draiky along to greet Daniel. He bent down to carefully hug her. He saw how happy she was to see him back on board.

Draiky would have loved to drag Daniel along for some tea, but had to postpone that urge, as Ulaman had some things he wanted to talk about with Daniel. She therefore did the next best thing: she went to get tea and told them she’d take it up to the bridge.

Once tea and a few biscuits were on the table, and the people were around all that, Ulaman started to talk. “The workmen discovered and fixed a few more problems with the ship, Daniel. We won’t be taking her out for cargo in the coming days, it is merely tests after fixes. Nothing serious, but I am sure you want to know this.”

Daniel nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that. It worries me that such a small pirate ship can cause so much damage.”

Ulaman nodded. “I have never heard of this kind of attack before. The Seigner is looking into having the hull strengthened, but that could mean it makes the ship behave differently. It was designed to be the way it is.”

That, of course, was a serious thing to consider. There was little reason in making the ship less reliable.

“There is something else, Daniel. Something you should feel honoured about.” Ulaman got up, went to a drawer and took an envelope from it. He handed it to Daniel.

It was dark brown, carried a blue seal and it was written in a beautiful hand. ‘To the attention of Mr. Daniel Zacharias’, it read. The seal was the symbol of Seigner Dandra ko Galem, Daniel recognised it as he had seen it on his hydger a few times.

“What’s this?”

“Open it,” was Xandree’s simple solution.

He did so and pulled out a letter, written in the same way as the envelope.

’Mr. Daniel Zacharias,

The family of Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem cordially invites you to attend a soirée at their house.

The soiree will be held on the eighteenth day of this month, you are welcome to arrive at any time after the sun starts setting.

Appropriate attire will be appreciated.’

The invitation ended with a series of numbers, which made up the carriage address for the house.

Daniel read the invitation twice, then stared at the people at the table. “They are inviting me for a party?”

“Yes. And rather you than me, Daniel,” Ulaman said. “You will be able to fit in there. The Seigner sometimes has such a thing, and the mouse, who gave me this, told me you were invited as you have been so crucial in saving the cargo and the Pricosine.”

Daniel looked at the paper. “The eighteenth day. That’s tomorrow!”

“Yes. That is why I wanted you to come over today. Otherwise I would have brought it to you,” Ulaman grinned.

“Right. Should I be worried about the bit on appropriate attire?” Daniel had the distinct feeling that his regular suits would be far from appropriate for a soirée.

“I suggest you find a clothing shop that can help you, Daniel. Your ship’s clothes are probably not nice enough. Even when washed.” Xandree was definitely right. As usual.

Daniel drank some tea. “I was afraid you were going to say that.” It was well known all over the ship how he felt about suits, so there was some laughter and a careful pat on the shoulder for encouragement.

Daniel spent some more time talking to Ulaman, Xandree and Draiky, and then he went on deck again to spend some quality time with his sailor friends. They all were very curious, so he took the time to tell them about the events in hospital as far as he could and listened to their stories. Time flew, so he joined the crew for a meal on board. After that he wished them all good luck in getting the ship in shape again and left the harbour, in search of a clothing shop. For the appropriate attire that would be appreciated…

-=-=-

“No, sir. I must strongly disagree, with your permission. You should put on the blue suit again.” The face of the man in the clothes shop made it clear that ‘no’ was not an option. “It suits you, the colour looks perfect on you as well.”

Daniel did not like blue. The fact that his skin was still slightly blue was bad enough, but this man, who insisted on selling him a sky-blue suit, was driving him mad. The worst thing was that the other two shops where he had been had also suggested blue suits. “I think that more blue is not a good idea, sir, considering the present colour of my skin,” he tried. The brown one he had on now was good.

“Oh, really sir, if that is the whole problem, we can simply arrange for a light toning powder to make your skin look more its natural complexion again.” He rushed off, leaving Daniel behind. In a blue suit, in full view of a large mirror.

The man returned with a young woman who carried a large box. Daniel recognised the thing as a beauty case and shivered. “Look, dear sir,” he started, “this is just for a soirée, a one time affair.”

“Oh, but I do understand, Mr. Zacharias,” the clothes addict responded, “and especially if that is the case, you should not do less than the utmost to make a perfect impression on your hosts. Now if you would please take off your coat…”

Daniel was relieved from the suit, planted in a seat, and the young woman got to work on his arms, face and neck. He tried to object only one more time, but that did not seem to reach any ears, so he gave up and in.

After an hour of being brushed, painted, powdered and rubbed, the young woman was satisfied. The clothes man invited him to put on the blue suit again. He complied and looked into the mirror.

Daniel got up and looked. “Wow.”

“Excuse me, sir?” the woman asked. “Is something not to your liking?”

“Oh, no. I do apologise, miss. I am surprised, you did an outstanding job,” Daniel had to admit. Even the blue suit did not look so bad now. The procedure had been more than the ‘light toning powder’, but it was worth it.

The clothes advisor smiled. “I am glad you approve, sir. I do have an idea now. If you would excuse me…” Again he rushed off.

“Will you be needing me, sir, Arvin will know where I am,” the painter lady said. “The colour will stay for several days, and it will hold in a bath. Do refrain from one today, please, though.” She smiled, curtsied and left, her box in her hands.

Arvin the clothes man returned, another suit in his hands. “This, sir, might be more to your liking.”

The suit he brought was dark blue. Daniel put it on. And he liked it. The pants and sleeves were too short, but Arvin promised that their tailor would be able to correct that without a trace.

Daniel left the store, a small business card tucked in his pocket as well as the address coordinates of the shop in his hydger. The suit, the new shirt and the tie to match would be waiting for him the next morning.

22. Soirée (1)

Daniel came into his apartment again. He carried a large package. The trip to the clothes shop had gone well, the final fitting of the new clothes was swift, and Arvin had also sold him a pair of new shoes.

“Do wear them today, sir, and take them off a few hours before you will be going to the soirée tonight.”

Daniel had no idea how much this purchase had set him back financially. He still had not figured out how much he had to spend. As long as nobody complained, he assumed things would be fine.

After hanging up the new suit he stripped and stepped into the small bathroom. Carefully he rubbed his forearm. Very good, he thought, the painter lady knew what she was doing: the colour did not yield. Carefully despite that, he showered. The colour held.

He spent most of the day walking around his apartment in his new shoes, reading a few newspapers he had picked up earlier, and chatting to Tomlin for a few minutes. The hydger surprised him: he was using it many times and there was no indication it needed to be recharged. Hooray for puzzling technology.

As he had not the faintest idea until what time the soirée would go on, he took a nap for a while. After waking up from a disturbing Rhonda-filled dream, he took another shower, as most of the day had already gone by.

Putting on the suit, Daniel wondered what he was going to encounter that evening. The princess of course, he thought with a snort. And the mouse was probably going to be there. “Do not use that word, stupid ass,” he scolded himself. It would be too easy to let that slip out in a conversation. If he had to go through this, he would do it as well as he could.

Daniel looked himself over best he could, using the small mirror in the room. It would have to do. He locked the door, unlocked it, went to fetch the invitation, and then went out to the street.

He opened the hydger and switched it on. It spluttered and crackled at him. “Oh no. Not now.” He closed the cover and slapped it. Then it worked. “Percussive maintenance,” Daniel grinned, remembering the expression from a star base mechanic from so long ago.

The carriage came to pick him up. He used his revived box and the vehicle got in motion. As it left the Skarak city limit it suddenly picked up its pace. Daniel had never thought these things could go so fast, and he admitted to himself that the velocity worried him. The carriages did not exactly strike him as being built for speed.

The need for it became clear however, as the trip took some twenty minutes. Clelem’s house was located in the Zoroon Community, where the high society of this area lived. The houses that the carriage took him by proved that, and after slowing down upon entering Zoroon city itself, the houses became mansions. Daniel was amazed by the size of the homes.

The carriage stopped and the door swung open. Daniel left the cart and was greeted by two men in red uniforms. They stood near a small platform that was circled by many torches. He handed them the invitation.

“Ah, Mr. Zacharias. Welcome to the house of Seigner Dandra ko Galem,” one of the men said. “If you would please wait a moment, the floater will return soon.”

Floater? Daniel looked upwards as there was no house where he stood. He saw an oversized football come down. The thing was about fifteen foot long, and as it was almost over the platform Daniel saw that the yellow blot beneath it was a basket. They were going to bring him up in what looked like a hot air balloon! He fought an upcoming grin and lost.

Another carriage arrived, and two people stepped from it. They were greeted as Seigner and the lady Porval ko Winkui. They looked magnificent, Daniel thought. Not his style or taste, but still.

The two uniformed men held open a hatch in the basket. Daniel let the Seigner and his lady step in first, then he followed. He’d trail behind and see what happened.

The floater slowly moved up again. No one had pushed anything, it just went. The ride was only forty-five seconds, but it allowed for a truly amazing view of the bay that was coloured by the setting sun. The floater stopped its ascent at a wide bridge that led into a small building. Daniel grinned again; he had seen this in Tomlin’s house.

The people left their basket, and the floater went downwards again to pick up more visitors. Daniel followed the couple inside, where three ladies in black gowns welcomed the guests, relieved people from their overcoats and beckoned them to walk on.

As Daniel had expected, there was a transparent tunnel which led to the main house. It was considerably longer than the one he had seen before.

Daniel stood to the side of the tunnel and took some time to take in the place of his boss. It was huge and richly decorated with small statues on all the railings of the patios that where made around each of the three floors. There was an enormous garden. There were many patches of grass in it. He recognised it as Turut grass, extremely hard and sharp. Every patch of grass had many flowerbeds in it, in enough colours to be the envy of the average rainbow. There was a maze of walkways throughout the garden, many benches and other seating arrangements. Everywhere in the garden also were high conifer-like plants and glowing sticks that provided a very nice lighting. The entire place breathed riches.

Daniel followed a small group that walked through the tunnel and reached the entrance to the main house. Three servants were there to look at the invitations once more and hand out glasses with wine. He then followed the people in front of him as they seemed to know what to do next.

It ended him up in a queue that did not move along very quickly. Daniel looked around the large hall. There was a fountain in the middle of it, spraying water in wide arches. He could not see where the water went, as there were too many people in the way. There was a lot of talking going on already.

The queue moved along a little at the time. Then Daniel saw the reason for the slowness: Clelem and his family were lined up, greeting all the guests personally and taking the time to exchange some words with them. At the end of the line he saw the mouse. Gaguran Slindris. This was going to be fun.

“Mr. Zacharias. How gentle of you to come,” Clelem said, shaking his hand shortly. “I am pleased to see you are doing well.”

“Thank you, Seigner, I was honoured by your invitation.”

“You are most welcome, Mr. Zacharias. Your heroic actions aboard the ship should not go unnoticed.”

Clelem’s wife was clearly the blueprint for their daughter. The same dark hair and eyes, and a lady through and through. “Mr. Zacharias, I have heard of your bravery. Thank you for joining us on this evening.”

“I was merely doing my job, Lady Dandra ko Galem,” Daniel said, bowing to her.

“It did cost you, sir. Do not talk down your actions. It is not befitting.” She smiled at him. A nod told him that she was done talking to him, so he moved on.

Rayko stepped backwards. “Stay away from me,” she hissed, keeping a smile on her face. “I want my clothes to stay in one piece.” It was fierce enough for her mother to quickly glance at her daughter.

“Very pleased to meet you again also, Miss Dandra ko Galem,” Daniel smiled, enjoying a strange delight in her reaction. “Will we enjoy your company aboard the Pricosine again?”

She glared at him, venom in her eyes. Daniel’s eyes lingered for a moment on the unusual strip of red jewellery that the young woman wore on her cheek.

Daniel moved to the next person in the line, a young man he did not know. He had long black hair hanging over his shoulders, deep dark eyes, and a strong chin. He also had a cane in hand.

“Warlem Dandra ko Galem,” the young man introduced himself. “I am the disgrace of the house, and deemed useless to boot.”

Daniel was surprised about this introduction.

“I have heard what you have done, Mr. Zacharias, and I applaud your daring,” Warlem said, bowing to him. “I’m afraid that I am not made of the material of heroes.”

Daniel grinned. “We are not all the same, sir.”

“And that is a good thing,” Warlem shared, only then releasing Daniel’s hand. “After all, what good are acts of heroism if there are no poets to recite their achievements?”

“Uhm, I guess you’re right, sir,” Daniel said, rather out of his field with that remark. He nodded and faced Gaguran.

“Mr. Zacharias. Good evening. Welcome.”

“Good evening, Mr. Slindris.” That and a nod completed the round of introductions.

Daniel stepped away and positioned himself near a large plant, out of the crowd. He took his time to get a feel for the people who were there.

“Are you feeling out of place, Mr. Zacharias?”

To his surprise, it was his host who addressed him. “Oh, good evening, Seigner. I am just trying to get in the proper spirit. I am not used to venues like this.”

“I understand.” Clelem nodded. “Have you been treated well during your stay in the hospital? I worried about you, Mr. Zacharias. It was a fortunate occasion that the medical person from your former location was present to assist. Our Glandrine skin is becoming you.”

“The staff of the hospital was wonderful, Seigner Dandra ko Galem,” Daniel said, as he caught Gaguran trailing after Rayko who was disappearing in the crowd. “I hope to be able to reimburse the people who paid for my stay there.”

“No need to worry about that, Mr. Zacharias. The Ship Owners Society has provisions for incidents like these,” Clelem said.

Then Warlem, his son, cut in. “Father, the senator has arrived, would you please join us?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Zacharias.” The two men walked off to greet a thin guest who wore a remarkable green robe. The man had long, wavy blond hair and a large nose. That was a senator?

Daniel frowned and sipped some more of his wine. Then he slowly walked into the large hall, to satisfy his curiosity. He had to know where the arches of water ended up.

23. Soirée (2)

Daniel felt a stranger in the large house. His suit did not make him stand out, but his size did. Oh, there were several people in the hall who greeted him and entertained some socialising, but there was no real connection. He longed for the company of the people of the Pricosine, or the comfort of his own space in his apartment.

A large buffet, spanning almost a dozen of tables, was opened in an adjoining room. Daniel had not a clue what most of the food was, so he picked from the large plates carefully.

“Lavish, isn’t it?” someone asked Daniel, who was studying a plate with curly pink things. It was Warlem, the poet and shame of the family.

“It is, indeed. And I don’t know most of it either,” Daniel confessed. He had taken an immediate liking to this young man who was one of the few normal people here, as far as he was concerned.

“Those are safe,” Warlem pointed at the pink curlies. “Avoid the green vegetables if you do not like sour food, and the yellow cubes over there are sweet.” He picked one from the bowl. “And delicious.” The cube quickly disappeared from view and fingers.

Daniel appreciated the assistance, and approved of the choice of food he carried away from the tables, looking for a place to sit down.

Warlem followed him with a plate of his own. “I was highly entertained by what I heard had happened to my sister,” he said as he sat down next to Daniel. “And please, do enjoy the food. It is prepared by the the cook that was on the boat.”

“Ship.” It popped out before Daniel knew it.

Warlem laughed. “You are one of them. How quaint.”

Daniel failed to see the quaintness but ignored the remark. He was glad to have some company.

“Rayko was highly distressed about your behaviour on board. I assume you know that?”

“There were a few incidents, indeed, but from my view they were not too bad.”

“You, sir, need to learn about women and clothing. Tearing her dress has signed your death warrant.” Warlem chuckled.

Daniel grinned along with him, recalling the moment. “Luckily she managed to trip all by herself.”

“She tripped? Oh dear, and you were there to see it? Sir, you are braver than I had already had given you credit for, by showing yourself here tonight. And you are still standing — well, sitting, after meeting her. She must like you.” Pleasure danced over Warlem’s face as his eyes searched for his sister. “The poor sod never gives up,” he sighed before taking a bite of his food.

Daniel frowned and scanned the room, seeing Gaguran standing close to Rayko in a rather odd way. The woman ignored him completely, yet he looked as if he was having the time of his life. Daniel grinned.

“Ah, you heard about him, I understand,” Warlem said. “And there he is, feeling completely inconspicuous.” The poet shook his head, sending his hair jumping.

“Warlem, I require your seat for a moment.” Clelem suddenly stood with them.

Warlem got up and walked away, without a word. It was something that surprised Daniel.

“Mr. Zacharias, I hope my son was not being his indigestible self,” the Seigner said as he sat down. “He has the habit of making himself unwanted in many ways.”

Before Daniel could reply, the man continued: “I want to thank you again, personally, for the work you are doing. You saved a ship, a cargo and the lives of many.”

“It is what I am supposed to be doing, sir,” said Daniel. “Sometimes an assignment is harder than other times.”

“Yet, you have gone beyond tasks, Mr. Zacharias.” Clelem nodded and stared into the crowd for a moment. “I assume that you have things under control?”

Daniel wondered about that question. “I would hope so. But could you elaborate your question, please?”

Clelem reached for a new glass of wine. “Of course. There has been word in Ship Owner circles that there are people trying to trick employees into switching positions. If you know what I mean.”

“Ah. I see.” Daniel thought back to the offer of Huajo, the fat ship owner he had met. “In that case, Seigner Dandra ko Galem, everything is under control.”

“Very good. I am pleased to hear that. Do enjoy your evening, Mr. Zacharias.” With that, Clelem got up and disappeared in the crowd that kept moving like living tapestry.

Daniel finished his food and returned to the other room to get rid of his plate. He returned to the main hall, studied some faces and paintings, and went back to the large fountain where glowing fish were swimming. The sun had since long set, and the light of the animals was fascinating to watch now.

Small groups of people were now forming, all wrapped in their favourite subjects. Daniel moved around the room, feeling lost again. He could not locate the poet, which made him feel even more alone. Suddenly, as he passed an open door that led into a side room, he recognised the voice of Clelem. The man sounded very aggravated. He then also heard the voice of Rayko.

“Father, no, I hate that man and I am sufficiently disgusted that you asked him to come here,” she said.

Daniel leaned against the wall, prepared to walk off at the slightest change in the room.

“Rayko, you need to know your place and respect your upbringing. The man saved us a lot of money. He risked his life for the company, and captain Xhylor told me he did all he could to make your life on the ship as pleasurable as possible.”

Daniel was painfully aware that he was listening in on a private conversation about him. He knew he should not be here, but he also could not rip himself away from it.

“Child, you should listen to your father,” said Clelem’s wife.

“Mother, please. If you knew what he did to me on that ship! It was… it was… arghhh.”

The mystery of Warlem’s whereabouts was solved when his voice sounded. “Hmm. He saved your life when something with sails happened, he carried you on board and down again. Yes, I can see why you hate him. All these horrible things, dear sister.”

Daniel suppressed a smile and feigned interest in an ugly bouquet of flowers.

“You should keep your mouth shut, idiot.” Rayko obviously was far from amused.

“Rayko, your language, please,” her mother pleaded. In vain.

“Father, I want that you remove this person from the house now. If you don’t, I’ll tell Slindris to do that. I can’t stand him, I can’t stand the way he mocks me by just looking at him, I can’t stand… anything about him!”

Clelem seemed to have enough of this scene his daughter was causing. “Rayko, stop this. I tell you to behave and be at least courteous towards the man. I have enough other things to attend to, like why another idiot is not able to control his associates when I ask him to. And you will not tell Slindris anything, do you hear me, daughter?”

A few seconds later, Rayko came steaming from the room. Daniel had heard footsteps so he had veered up from the wall and pretended to be passing by. She almost ran into him. The look she treated him to was one of rage and utter contempt, then she pushed her way through the guests and disappeared.

“Oops,” he mumbled. Suddenly he needed some fresh air. He cruised through the hall again and found the large glass open doors that led out to the garden. The wind greeted him, and he breathed in deeply. There were only a few guests there.

Daniel found his way alongside the great garden, following the glowing sticks that lit the paths. He reached the far end of the garden and leaned over the balustrade, looking out over the lights of Zoroon. “You don’t belong here, boy,” he told himself. “You’re not very wanted except for your skills, and look what those got you. Being rebuilt twice. And-” he shivered for the first time “-the second time they used the skin of dead people for it. Way to go.”

He tried to banish all thoughts from his head, but that proved harder than it sounded. He wondered if being here on this planet was a good idea. He wondered where Rhonda was. Maybe he should get in touch with his sister, quit the army for real and retire near where she lived. Wherever that was.

“Mr.Daniel Zacharias? May I distract you for a moment?” The voice that spoke was gentle, warm. Daniel turned and found that it belonged to the thin senator in the green robe.

“Oh, uhm, of course.” Daniel was taken by surprise by the man. “Good evening. I’m afraid I have not caught your name.”

“You could not, dear sir, as I never let it fly. My name is senator Sygra Dirrit ko Asac.”

They shook hands. “A pleasure, senator.”

“You do not strike me as a very happy person, Mr. Zacharias. The only one, in fact, as everyone is enjoying the party.” The senator leaned on the railing.

Daniel held in his snort. “Miss Dandra ko Galem was not very pleased just now.”

Sygra smiled. “I am sure she’ll get over it. I heard from her mother that Rayko’s team lost their game this afternoon, which cost them the regional title.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Daniel said. It probably was a race in cross-stitching or something equally exciting.

“You are not,” the senator commented calmly. “You are an intriguing person, Mr. Zacharias. You put your life on the line for Clelem’s ship. He speaks highly of you. There are many ship owners who would pay a dear price to have you on their ship. And you seem unhappy.”

Sygra turned to Daniel. “What is happening inside you, Mr. Zacharias?”

Daniel was slow to react.

The senator put a hand on Daniel’s arm. “Would you accompany me to a seat out of the wind? I’m afraid my old bones cannot take the weather like they used to.” They walked to a bench with thick cushions, a large plant behind them, a dozen glowing sticks in front of them. “This is better. I appreciate it, Mr. Zacharias. Now, tell me. What is going on inside you?”

Daniel hesitated for a moment. Then he started telling the senator about his feelings, his thoughts, his worries.

Behind the large plant, unseen and unheard, sat someone, listening to the conversation.

“You see, sir, after being saved from death twice, after changing into someone yet again, it is hard to decide to what people I belong. After the Bactine operation, my own people did not really accept me for who I was. But the other Rebuilts also didn’t. Then I got shoved away, to this planet. No offence, sir, it is a nice planet. But it is hard for me to call it home.”

The senator nodded. “That must be hard. You struggle and the gratification is not coming. But you are still alive, young man.”

“True. But at times I wonder if that is all worth this. I was an Assault Marshall, up for becoming sergeant. Instead of that, I am set up, there’s a stain on my name. And now I am here, sailing on a ship fighting pirates and waiting to be chopped up again.”

Sygra patted Daniel on the shoulder. “Perhaps you should give it some time. You’ve undergone some impressive traumas, Mr. Zacharias. Time is the best healer for this. The fact that you are here shows your strength. You could have stayed at home and sulk, sir.”

Daniel grinned. “Thank you, senator. I’ll give it some more time.”

“There’s a good man,” the senator said. “I really appreciate your confidence, Mr. Zacharias. Now, if you will excuse me. My old bones need the warmth of the inside again.”

“Good evening, Seigner Dirrit ko Asac. Thank you for your ear.”

The thin man smiled down at the still sitting Daniel. “I hope we can meet again someday.” He slowly walked off, his robe flowing left and right as he moved.

“I doubt it,” Daniel mumbled. He also got up and after a last look around the garden, he went inside, getting ready to leave.

Behind the plant, a shadow waited for a while, then also slipped into the house.

Daniel walked through the see-through tunnel, reached the reception building and one of the ladies who were still there found his coat. The floater was already waiting so he stepped in and waited until the thing had taken him to the platform at the foot of the hill. Once there, he saw a long line of carriages waiting. Both the men who had been there when he arrived were gone, so he walked to the first carriage and made it take him home.

All this trouble for a few hours…

24. A strange call

Once inside his apartment, he changed into something comfortable and lay down on the bed. On the way home he had wondered why nobody here had thought of making one of these floater things a lot larger to create a flying balloon that was big enough to carry loads. That would give the pirates a hard time. He shrugged in the dark. There probably were things he didn’t know. He could not imagine that nobody had ever tried it.

As he was wondering about the way he had emptied his heart and soul in front of the senator, a man he didn’t know at all, his hydger started rattling.

“Go away whoever you are, I am not in the mood,” he complained.

This was not good enough. The hydger kept at it, as if the person on the other end was not about to give up.

“This had better be good.” He picked himself up from the bed and made his way over to the table where the troublemaker was. As he picked it up, the rattle stopped. “I wonder who it was I pissed off so much that I had to go through this day,” he muttered and started back to the bed. Then the hydger started again. This time Daniel did not take chances. He was quick to get the box.

The screen showed a black triangle and no name. “Now what.” Curiously, he flipped the switch. “Zacharias here.”

There was some strange grunting sound, then a distorted voice said: “You are mister Daniel Zacharias?” There was a strange sound next to the voice, as if a steel brush grated over a bucket.

“Yes. Who is this?”

“My name is not important. I have to speak with you.”

Daniel walked to a corner where, in a closet, he kept his special suitcase. With one hand he opened it and searched for something, as he asked what the talk would be about.

“I can not tell you that over this line,” the voice said, as Daniel switched on his scanner.

“Null reading,” it told him. He had to make the other person talk more.

“Listen, whoever you are. I am not in the mood to play games, so either you tell me what this is about, or I will simply hang up on you.”

“No, don’t. I have something important to discuss with you. You will come to the Maliser Park at the west side of Skarak. There is a group of six trees next to the entrance. Meet me there in an hour.”

The black triangle disappeared, and the display then only showed a set of numbers. Coordinates.

“Scrambled voice pattern,” the scanner said.

“Thanks. I had figured that out already,” Daniel muttered, switching the scanner off and tossing it back into the suitcase. Clearly Earth’s military stuff was not capable of tracing through local technology.

His finger hovered over the off switch of the hydger. It hesitated. Then, slowly, as if it had a mind of its own, it pressed the store-button. The secretive technology of the box hiccuped and then the display showed ‘Maliser Park’.

Half an hour later he arrived at Maliser Park. He wanted to be early, to see where the strange person would come from. The entrance consisted of two thick trees that had suffered from pocks or a similar disease. Around the park were lights, and low bushes of a very needly kind. Entering the park unseen was impossible, he noticed. There were so many lights that even in the dark nothing could move here without being seen. That was a good thing.

Standing close to one of the thick trees, he looked over the area. He counted six trees in a group, just off to the left. Okay. Not okay. Further to the right also was a group of six trees. Tada for keeping things balanced, but this messed up the plan.

He took his chances and opted for the right-hand set of six. Keeping low, he ran over to them, took position and waited.

After more than half an hour, there still was nobody. He waited longer. Still nobody.

“Someone had you by the balls, Daniel,” he muttered as he stepped out of the set of trees. As he slowly walked to the exit, still looking around, he saw a movement among the other six trees. He stopped and turned towards them.

A large cloaked figure stepped out into the light. “You are late. Come.” Then it disappeared among the trees again.

Muttering something unintelligible he walked over. The figure in black stood waiting. The head was hidden under a hood and there was a mask in front of the face. The cloak was wide, as if it had to house a family of three.

“I was not late. You did not tell me what set of trees,” Daniel said, half amused and half accusing.

“That does not matter.” The steel brush was clearly there. And the voice was severely distorted, up to the point that Daniel had to pay close attention to the words. “I have an offer to make you, Mr. Zacharias. My aim is to take a ship out of commission. The Pricosine. You can make this happen.” The owner of the voice clearly had problems speaking through the distorting contraption. The words came out in blurts.

“And for what reason would you want to do that?” Daniel felt himself tensing up. Whatever he had felt a few hours before, this was a direct attack on the ship that he loved, property of the man who had invited him to a party at his house. No matter how lousy a party it had been.

“I have my reasons,” said the mask. “You will be richly rewarded if you cooperate.”

“And if I don’t?”

“You will suffer the consequences.”

Daniel slowly moved into a stance from where he could react quickly. “I am not in the habit to negotiate with terrorists,” he said, “and I am certainly not picking that up now.” Quickly he jumped forward, reaching out to grab the mask and pull it off, but the person in the cloak was prepared. A small stick was suddenly thrust forward, hitting him in the chest. The punch itself was not a problem. The disabling current that it sent through Daniel’s body however was.

His legs gave way, making him fall down. His arms did not obey the commands from his brain any more either. As he lay on the ground, the black figure watched him. “That, Mr. Zacharias, was not a smart thing to do.” Then the person in black moved away, the steel brush rasping.

By the time Daniel’s body started to understand him again, he had gotten very cold. There was a clear difference with the Bactine body. As if he was drunk, he clambered to his feet, seeking support from one of the trees. After a few minutes he felt able to walk again. First, however, he used the hydger to summon a carriage. He had to get back to the house of Clelem Dandra ko Galem and report this.

The carriage rattled off, with Daniel inside. The ride seemed to take ages, as hardly any light was there along the way. Daniel wondered again how the carriages worked, how they were powered and found their way around. And he muttered that the high speed was by far not fast enough, although that still was a lot faster than he would be able to run.

Finally the carriage came to a halt at the house of Clelem. It lined itself up with the long queue of other carriages that were waiting for passengers. Daniel jumped out of the car and ran up to the platform where this time the two men in uniform were present again.

“Get me the floater down,” he ordered, “I have to get back up there.”

The two men frowned. “Sir, your invitation?”

“Come on, man,” Daniel threw all courtesy overboard, “I was here earlier. The lady up there took my invitation. Don’t you remember me?”

“Sir, over one hundred people came here this evening,” one of them said, slightly apologising. “I do not recall having seen your… attire this evening. It would have stuck in my memory.”

Daniel looked down. He was wearing his time-off clothes, not the blue suit. He pulled out the hydger and looked up the number for the Clelem. “Don’t make me use this. Sir. I work on the Pricosine. I was here earlier, as I am the guy that got ripped apart during the pirate attack. And if you make me press this button, your boss will have your ass for breakfast.”

Two pairs of eyes stared at him. “Sir. Please.” They quickly conferred among each other and reached a verdict. A minute later the floater was down at the platform and Daniel hopped on board. The floater took him up, and as soon as it halted at the reception building, he was out and through the building in a matter of seconds. He dashed past people in the transparent tunnel, who were standing there, chatting and admiring the garden, and reached the hall which had become even more crowded.

Several of the guests stared at Daniel and started whispering. Around him, most of the talk fell silent as eyes peered at him, his appearance making quite the impression.

“Sir?” One of the servants approached him. “Oh, it is you. What happened to you, sir?”

“I got ambushed. I have to see the Seigner, can you take me to him?” Daniel did not feel like small talk.

“The Seigner is in a conversation, sir,” the servant said.

“Then show me where he is, man. This is important.”

The servant guided Daniel through the crowd, to a smaller room. It was the room where he had overheard the talk of Clelem with his family, concerning himself. Clelem sat a table with four other gentlemen.

“Seigner Dandra,” the servant began, but Daniel pushed past him.

“I am very sorry to burst in on you like this, sir, truly I am, but I have to see you. Now. This is urgent.”

Clelem looked up at Daniel. “You look very shaken up, Mr. Zacharias. And I recall it is very unlike you to interrupt people in this manner, so I assume there is indeed something pressing you have to tell me.” He got up. “Please, come with me. Gentlemen, if you would please excuse my leave.”

Clelem took Daniel to yet another room. It had windows that looked out over the bay. “Mr. Zacharias, talk to me.”

Daniel told his story, about the call, the meeting in the park, the threat towards the Pricosine and how he had been stunned and left paralysed by the cloaked person.

Clelem nodded slowly. He got up, looked outside the room for a moment and closed the door. “Mr. Zacharias, I am in your debt for coming here and bringing this matter to my attention. Unfortunately this is not the first time I have been threatened. There were letters and messages. Anonymous of course, but they all were directed against either my person, my family or my ships. So far they have only been threats without any action being taken to turn them into serious affairs. But this…” Clelem shook his head. “Do you have any idea who this person was?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry. I would not know.” Daniel had calmed down as Clelem was taking the time to listen to him, and he had relocated his more politely side again. “The shape of the person would give me reason to think of someone, but as I have no evidence of that, I would not feel safe in mentioning a name.”

“Ah… one moment please…” Clelem walked to the door and talked to someone. He returned soon. “I have asked for some tea for you, Mr. Zacharias. You look like you can do with that.”

“Thank you, Seigner. Have you mentioned the threats to the police?”

“I did, of course, but they are unable to provide me any services as long as no physical act has been committed. It is a sad truth, Mr. Zacharias, but it is so.”

After a knock on the door, a servant came in with a cup of tea and two glasses of local cognac.

“Cheers, Mr. Zacharias.”

The two men drank in silence. Then the door flew open.

“Father, Seigner Lastor has just told me-” Rayko stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at her father and Daniel. “I am sorry.” Her eyes shot devastation at Daniel. “My apologies.” She left the room.

“And mine, Mr. Zacharias. My daughter somehow learnt her manners from one of the sailors, I sometimes think.”

Daniel waved it away. “That’s fine, really. Miss Dandra ko Galem and I seem to be getting off on the wrong foot continually.”

Clelem nodded. “Yes, so I’ve heard.”

Daniel was not sure if there was a hidden chuckle in the man’s words.

“Now, let us return to recent events. Mr. Zacharias, I would appreciate it if you were to keep up your efforts to inform me about strange things. Anything at all that attracts any kind of attention. You have my permissions to alert me or Mr. Slindris at any moment of the day or night, if you suspect it necessary.”

“Thank you, Seigner. I will keep my eyes open.” Daniel drank his tea before it would go cold. “Do you think that there is a chance that pirates have their hand in these threats?”

Clelem looked at him. “I have been thinking about that as well, Mr. Zacharias. At this point, I think, anything is possible…”

25. Soirée (3)

“Mr. Zacharias,” Clelem said, “would you please honour me by staying a bit longer? Mr. Slindris told me that he saw you leave in quite a hurry after speaking with the senator. I hope the good man did not say anything to upset you?”

Daniel did not believe his ears. “No, no, the senator had no part in my leaving. Excuse me, sir, but my appearance…”

Clelem smiled. “We’ll fix that for you. Just allow me a moment.” He got up and left the room.

Minutes passed, and Daniel wondered if he had been forgotten. Then the door opened and Gaguran came in, carrying things. The man did not look amused.

“Mr. Zacharias,” he said, “we have collected some items for you to try on. If you would be so kind.”

Had Daniel’s life depended on the vibrance in Gaguran’s voice, he would have keeled over then and there. He got up and looked at the ‘items’. There were two suits in the collection that would be sort of okay, so he tried one of them on. It was dark red lined with silver thread and the least obnoxious of the two.

“We could not locate a decent shirt in your size so quickly, so this will have to do,” Gaguran said. He picked up a sort of scarf and held it up. It was earth brown and had a strange, maze-like pattern in it.

Daniel had to sit down, so Gaguran could wrap it around his neck. How the mouse did it, he had no idea, but when he was finished it actually looked very good. Daniel checked himself in the mirroring windows.

“This will do, sir,” said Gaguran. “Alas. Your footwear… ” he sighed.

Daniel’s yellow sneakers did indeed scream out a bit. “We’ll say it is the latest cry, Mr. Slindris, if someone asks.”

“Cry, Mr. Zacharias?”

“I am sorry. It is an Earth expression.”

“I see. Well, please remember that you are not on… Earth… here.”

Daniel tasted the disgust in the man’s words. “Of course, Mr. Slindris. You are right.”

Gaguran opened the door and waited for Daniel to leave. His displeasure was evident.

Daniel walked out of the room and into a surprise. The large room where Clelem had spoken with the other gentlemen was now nearly empty. Only Clelem, Gaguran and he were there. And Rayko, whose face conveyed a total lack of joy.

“Mr. Zacharias,” Clelem said, “I have asked my daughter to keep you company for the remainder of the evening.”

Rayko glared at her father with murder on her mind. Nothing less. “I am not going to do it,” she hissed.

“Mr. Zacharias,” Clelem ignored her, “the music will start soon. I assume you dance?”

Daniel was lost. He knew some dances, but wondered if any of them were even allowed on this planet. “A bit, sir.”

Clelem lightly pushed Rayko in the back. Just enough to make her stagger towards Daniel, who caught her.

She looked up at him as if she wanted to bite him. “I am going to step on your toes,” she promised. “And I am not going to like this.”

Clelem and Gaguran walked out of the room.

“I am sorry, Miss Dandra ko Galem, I did not intend this.”

Rayko stepped back and folded her arms over her chest. “You’d better not. I don’t like you and you don’t like me. Let’s at least agree on that.”

“Wholeheartedly,” Daniel stated.

She nodded. “Good.” Then the change in her stumped Daniel. She suddenly had the sweetest smile on her face. “Shall we, then?” For a moment she looked herself again. “Don’t get any wrong ideas, Mr. Zacharias.” The smile returned and she held up her arm, for him to take.

Arm in arm they entered the main hall, where musicians were taking their place. Rayko’s appearance seemed to be magnetic: within moments there was quite a crowd around her and Daniel. Rayko seemed in her element, being the centre of attention. As soon as she noticed that this was not Daniel’s game, she seemed to be aiming at directing most of it towards him.

Most of the guests had no idea who Daniel was. Rayko was quick to tell everyone what a wonderful hero Daniel was. The guests then tossed all kinds of questions at him, many that he had absolutely no answer to. Rayko, Daniel was certain, was enjoying this to no end.

A few times, Daniel noticed Gaguran walk by. The man’s face showed bad weather, and that seemed to get worse at each passing. Daniel was not happy about that, the man and he were not the best of friends already, and it was painfully clear to him that he was where Gaguran wanted to be. If only the man knew how much Daniel would like to trade places.

The first notes of music drifted over the crowds. Heads turned, people moved to the side to clear a part of the hall, and the first couples stepped on the suddenly available dance floor. The music also took away the attention of many people around him and Rayko, so he had some time to look at what was happening on the floor.

A punch on the arm brought his attention back to the daughter of his employer. “Miss?”

“You are supposed to be paying attention to me,” Rayko hissed, “not ignore me like this.” To make her point, she stepped on his toes. Then, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Oh, I would love to dance. Will you dance with me, Mr. Zacharias?”

Daniel felt doom crawling up on him. But he’d go down fighting. “Of course, Miss Dandra ko Galem. I’d be delighted.”

The guests opened up a corridor for them, as they walked to the dance floor. One of the people that saw them go had murder on his mind.

The last few steps to the dance floor suddenly brought a grin to Daniel’s face. The music had changed, and he actually knew (well, remembered) a dance that could work here. As long as his dance partner would cooperate. And that, he knew, would be the hard part.

The first minute of dancing was absolute disaster, which he had expected. But Rayko had been truthful when she’d said she would love to dance: she really did. Daniel noticed that suddenly her resistance dropped, and his toes were not attacked anymore — at least not on purpose. Daniel and Rayko were turning and turning, and she genuinely laughed at his surprised face as suddenly the music was gone.

Her smile disappeared for a moment as he grinned also. “I warned you about getting the wrong ideas,” she reminded him with a sweet voice. “And I want something to drink.”

“Of course, Miss Dandra ko Galem. Allow me…” He held up his arm this time.

“I hate you,” she whispered with a smile, as she took his arm and let him guide her off the floor and to a servant who carried beverages of all kinds and colours.

Soon there was a swarm of people around them again, all hungry for Rayko’s attention. Daniel was spared a lot of questions this time and he listened to the people. He noticed that many of them were sucking up to Rayko, probably hoping that she would put in a good word for them with her father or something equal. He also noticed that Rayko was clearly skilled in this game and dodged the requests by commenting on garments, jewellery or things she knew about the people that addressed her.

The musicians, six of them in light brown suits, using instruments Daniel never had seen, started playing again. “Miss Dandra ko Galem, would you like another dance?” Daniel asked in a lull of the conversations.

“Oh yes, please.” She flashed him a smile and off they were, to the dance floor. That seemed to be the place where most hostility would cease. She even apologised, once, as she stepped on Daniel’s toes.

After the dance they stayed on the dance floor, as the musicians announced another piece of music, which they immediately started into.

Rayko flushed. “Oh no, not this.”

“What’s the matter, miss?” Daniel said.

“I can’t dance this one. Take me off the floor. Now.”

“Too late,” Daniel decided. Many people were revolving and rotating around them, it would mean breaking through them. “Hold on.”

“What?”

Daniel lifted her off her feet and started turning them around to the music in a rather ad lib fashion, but somehow it worked with the music and the other dancers.

“Put me down! You are making me dizzy! Watch out, there are- whaa… Stop this!” Her stream of whispers became more frantic and also louder. “Don’t drop me, you big lug!”

“Be silent, will you?” Daniel said. “I am not going to drop you, and if you talk any louder the whole hall will hear you. Play along the way I did.”

“I hate you,” Rayko stated, and put in a few attempts to kick his shins, but stopped that soon after finding out that it hurt her toes more than him. Her volume had gone down again, though.

After the music ended, he gently put Rayko down again and offered her his arm. She was fuming, and it took her all her willpower and then some to keep smiling as he escorted her off the floor again.

The comment that came after them, “Such a handsome couple,” did not improve her mood. Daniel was not sure what he should do with it, so he ignored it. They arrived at a table with expensive-looking glassware filled with exotic liqueurs and small saucers that held all kinds of snacks.

Daniel stared at it all, as Rayko grabbed a saucer and a glass and pushed them into his hands. “Here. Look as if you enjoy it.”

“Thank you, miss,” he stammered.

“No need. At least that way you keep your hands off me,” she grumbled as she picked up a glass for herself.

“You looked so nice, out there,” a lady’s voice said. It was Clelem’s wife, Ugidra, who was suddenly standing next to them, her hand resting on the arm of Warlem who looked far too smug.

Rayko pretended to be very busy picking out a snack.

“Thank you, Mrs. Dandra ko Galem,” Daniel did his best. “Your daughter is very easy to dance with.”

“Oh, she is,” Warlem pitched, “sometimes it is as if she’s swept off her feet in a dance.” His face did not lose its smile as his sister cast the glare of death onto him.

The music started again.

“Maybe you would like to dance with someone else, dear sister?” Warlem said. “I see Mr. Slindris is all alone at the moment.”

“I’d rather die,” Rayko shared, “or dance with the lug again for that matter.”

Warlem smiled and nodded. Her mother frowned. “Mr. Slindris is a respected man, Rayko, you could be more friendly towards him.”

“Never,” Rayko was determined. Daniel wondered if he should share that he agreed with her sentiments, but decided against it. This was not the place, the time nor the company for that.

The evening went on, and at a certain point the first guests started to leave. Daniel and Rayko had found a middle ground where they could maintain a truce. Most of that was located on the dance floor, but after the musicians had stopped playing, they had taken to mingling and walking around. Clelem, they knew, was watching them. Or rather: her.

They found themselves sitting on a couch, not too close together. From where he was sitting, Daniel saw the senator in his green robe, lying on a couch, sound asleep.

Rayko was rubbing a foot that hurt.

“Did someone step on it?” Daniel asked.

“Hrmf,” she replied. “No. Your shins are too hard.”

“Do you want me to-” He stopped mid-sentence.

“No. Not in your lifetime,” she snapped. After a moment, she looked at him. “What were you going to suggest?”

“Rub your foot for you.”

“I can rub my own foot, thank you very much,” she snorted. She slipped her foot in her shoe again. “And you should stop seeking every opportunity to touch me.”

Before Daniel could respond to that, a few guests came up to Rayko to say good night. She got up, Daniel did so as well but held back a bit. He still was the stranger here, the outsider.

Clelem came walking to them. “Ah, daughter. I see you did what I asked of you. Very very good. I hope you had a good evening, Mr. Zacharias?”

“It was a nice evening, Seigner, thank you. I should take my leave now, though,” Daniel said.

“I understand,” said Clelem, taking his daughter’s arm. “We will go and bid our guests a good evening.”

“Thank you, sir, for the invitation. And for the talk. I’ll go change and find my way out, sir.”

Clelem nodded. “Do tell my wife you are leaving, before that, Mr. Zacharias. It would be appreciated.”

“Certainly, sir. Miss Dandro ko Galem…” Daniel nodded and walked off to where he saw Ugidra, Clelem’s spouse, where he said goodbye to her. Then he went into the side room where Clelem had so unceremoniously shoved his daughter into his arms. He shook his head. That was behaviour of the man he had never expected. Just before he entered the next room, where his own clothes were, he heard his name.

“Mr. Zacharias.” It was Rayko’s voice.

Surprised he turned. “Miss Dandra ko Galem.”

She stood half in and half hidden behind the opening of the door, her hand resting against its frame. “I just wanted to tell you that it was nice to dance with you. I still hate you, but I thank you. It did save me from worse.”

This confused him. It probably showed from his face, because Rayko added: “No, this is not something my father told me to say. Have a good evening, sir.” Then she vanished back into the hall.

After changing, Daniel went through the hall quickly. He looked for Rayko, but only saw Warlem the poet standing with his parents. The young man winked and waved as Daniel passed.

On the way home, Daniel tried to figure out what had happened that evening, but fatigue and the drinks made that an impossible task.

26. Under sail again

Everyone was on board of the Pricosine, wondering what had happened to Daniel’s mind. He was arranging long sticks and pieces of sail, tying everything together with strings.

“Daniel, you are a good man, but you must have lost your marbles somewhere ashore,” Ulaman grumbled. “You are serious with this?”

“Yes. I am very serious. I tried this on the higher hills a few days ago, and it works. And it doesn’t even need much wind.”

Daniel had found information about an ancient tool of war on the planet. It was a war-kite. Using light rods and thin sails, and also a good description with images, he had gotten to work and came out of the experiment with a kite large and strong enough to lift him up in the air. The landing bit was something that still needed some work, but if this thing could help battling pirates, then that would be worth it.

He secured the contraption and walked over to the bridge, when Stroro came walking next to him.

“Daniel, tell me something. Is it true that you danced with the Seigner’s daughter at his party?”

Daniel stopped walking for a moment. News surely travelled fast here. “Yes. I danced with her.”

“And the mouse was there to see that?” Stroro’s face lit up at the mere thought and it became worse as Daniel nodded. “Man, you are a hero! Wait until the rest hears about that!”

“Stroro, wait-”

But the sailor was already off, spreading the latest news. Daniel groaned and went up to the bridge.

Ulaman was not far behind him. “We’re going out tomorrow, Daniel. Earlier if I can help it, but the tables are against us.” He patted the book that listed the tides and water flow around the harbour. “So you danced with the Seigner’s daughter…”

Daniel groaned.

-=-=-

The next day, early morning, everything was ready. They cast off, the sails were set. Gaguran, the mouse, had been on board to check with Ulaman on certain things. He had ignored Daniel in such a way that it was obvious to everyone. It made Daniel even more the hero than he already was and hated.

Luckily the crew was busy for the first leg of the journey, as they had to cross through strange currents and fickle winds. After that part there was a calm stretch ahead of them.

Three days into the journey, Daniel lay in the sunshine, shielded from the breeze. His skin had coloured well; all the blue had gone after the painted-on tan had gone.

“Daniel?”

He recognised Xandree’s voiced and opened an eye. “Hello. I’m awake.”

Xandree nodded and sat down on a stack of rope next to him. “How are you?”

“I feel good. Glad to be back here. On the ship, with the crew, away from…”

She nodded again. “I don’t want to worry over you, Daniel. You looked very bad in the hospital. I need some certainty that you are okay. And not in your body, but also in your head. Something bad happened.”

Xandree’s simple approach to psychology made Daniel feel good. He sat up and winked at her. “I’m okay, Xandree. Really. I appreciate your concern, though.”

Xandree smiled. “That is good. Remember that you can always talk to me.” She got up. “Also about that party.”

“Will you get away from here!” Daniel pretended wanting to slap her, and she quickly walked off, laughing loudly. When was he ever going to hear the last of that…

-=-=-

“Daniel, Ulaman wants you on the bridge,” Brinno told him in passing.

“Thank you,” Daniel said. He looked at the kite once more, then went to see Ulaman.

On the bridge, the captain told him that the next day they’d be reaching their first stop, a narrow land strip sticking out into the waters. “It will be a ferrying unload again, Daniel, and the area is known for its load of bandits, so I want you to be very careful. Nobody on the ship without checking credentials.”

Ulaman showed him three seals. “These are okay. People who can come aboard carry one of those. The rest can piss off for all I care.”

Daniel understood that this was serious business: Ulaman’s jaw usually tensed up if that was the case. “Do we bring down our landing platform?”

“No, thank the powers. They have their own platforms. Saves us a lot of work.”

Overnight the sails were taken down. The massive bulk of the ship had enough speed to cross the remaining distance and the next morning the Pricosine was moored to a large floating platform. Many boats waited to get a turn at hooking up. Daniel was amazed about the number he had to send off again as they did not have the right seals, or even none at all. He had his hands full and at the end of the day, as the Pricosine was sailing off again, he was really bushed.

Over the evening meal, Bilk sat muttering about people getting in the way, and far too many small boxes. Daniel had noticed them too. Black and green boxes, a foot on every side. One of the smaller cargo bays was flooded with them. According to the papers they contained ‘parts’. Some of the boxes rattled, as the people who came to collect them carried them down the gangway, so it should be okay.

The next morning Daniel woke up early. Something had been gnawing at him during the night, and he just had to go and do something about that. He made his way to the smaller cargo area and randomly picked up a black box. He shook it. It rattled. A green box also rattled. After trying some twenty of them, he grabbed one and tore it open. He could close it again easily, there were ribbons around for that.

The box contained blocks, made of Polychlon. They were children’s toys. A grin appeared on Daniel’s face as he looked at a few blocks. Apparently they were meant to be stuck together, to make a shape, and it was more difficult than it looked. After a while he was sitting on the floor and trying to make sense of the shapes, ending up with a new and interesting shape every time, but never getting anywhere sensible.

“Are you practising, to make them with your sons?” a voice said, making him jump.

“Damn you, Darigyn, may the winds grab you,” Daniel cursed as a true sailor. “Man, you almost killed me.”

The sailor’s laughter rolled through the cargo bay. “You have problems with the toys of our children, Daniel?” He kneeled down and quickly stuck the blocks into a nice cube. “See, that is what this one is supposed to look like.”

The two men grinned as Daniel took the cube apart and put the parts in the box again. After wrapping it up, they went up on deck again.

Later that day, the sailing was smooth and the wind was fair, a small group of men had assembled behind the bridge. Daniel had strapped his kite to his shoulders, two men had ropes in their hands to keep him under control.

“You are a fool, Daniel,” said Ulaman who was looking down from the bridge. “That is what I like so much about you.”

Daniel laughed. “Okay, men. I’m going to step to the side now and raise the kite. Once the wind catches it, I’ll go up and I need you to hold me down.”

The ropes the men held were tied to strong studs on the deck, as a safety measure. And with the current wind that was not exaggerated.

“Don’t break your neck, Daniel. The Seigner will kill you.” Laughter rose up. Then Daniel carefully stepped to the side. He felt how the wind immediately tugged at the large kite he had on his back. He let the straps go; the kite now was two feet over him and pulled at his shoulders. Staring up, working the toggle-lines, he manoeuvred the kite just a bit more, and he swooped up.

The men on board hung in the ropes to keep Daniel down. It worked. Daniel was wobbling in the unsteady airwaves, but he was flying, hanging from his kite.

The people who were not working the ropes cheered.

“A bit more leeway!” Daniel called out. The men gave him more rope. He rose higher, he was now almost twenty feet up. High enough. With one hand he controlled both lines and reached down to his belt, where he searched for a ball that was supposed to be there. He could not find it.

“Daniel, more to the left!” someone yelled.

He looked down, left of his searching hand.

“DANIEL!!”

The kite swerved, caught itself in the rigging of the mast and hung there for seconds. Daniel, startled for a moment, reacted not fast enough. As he grabbed for the rigging, the kite fell down. It hit the deck with a loud cracking sound, followed by a ripping one. The fall had not been hard, but it had cracked most of the hollow sticks and also torn up the kite’s sail.

Daniel unhooked the straps and got up.

“Are you okay?” The sailors looked worried as they ran closer.

“I’m fine. Nothing happened, just a scratch,” Daniel said as he looked at the remains of the war-kite.

A few sailors quickly went up the rigging to see if that had not suffered from the collision, but Daniel’s kite had been far too light to cause a problem on the massive fusillage.

“You looked good up there, Daniel,” said Darigyn. “When we said ‘to the left’, we meant you should move your kite there.”

Daniel grinned, glad that he had come away unscathed. “Maybe some next attempt.”

“Yeah. Man, you need to learn a lot.”

“About what?” Daniel wondered about Darigyn’s remark.

“You can’t solve a children’s puzzle, and you can’t fly a kite. Your son will be so disappointed!”

-=-=-

“Can you make out what that ship is?” Daniel asked Ulaman as he handed back the telescope. His electronic eye still worked, but did not serve him better than a normal eye since the incident that had taken him out of his Bactine body.

The ship in question had been sailing on a parallel course with them for several hours, keeping a distance that they could not identify it..

“No. It looks like a small merchant, that wouldn’t be strange out here. It’s a mere sixty or so leagues to the shore.”

“I’ll keep an eye on them anyway,” Daniel said.

An hour later, the shape of the ship had grown. “Ulaman… they are coming closer.”

Ulaman looked through the telescope again. “Yes. It is a merchant. And they seem to have sail problems.”

Daniel looked again and then he noticed the torn main sail. “Do you think they need help?”

“With problems like that, I am sure they do, Daniel. Lidrin, slow approach.” And into the tube Ulaman yelled his commands for several sails to be lowered.

“Be careful, Ulaman. I don’t know if we can trust them.”

“Do you think they’re pirates? Sailing in that thing, with a ripped sail?”

“I would like to know what ripped that sail, captain. There hasn’t been a storm. I don’t think that sail ripped because a bird flew into it.”

Ulaman rubbed his chin. “Good point. Let’s be careful.”

From a safe distance, Ulaman yelled at the other ship’s captain. The captain yelled back, and so they learnt that the ship had been attacked by pirates and sustained quite some damage. Any help would be welcome.

Ulaman and some of the other sailors pointed out to each other the sail, several broken ropes and other misery on the other ship. “Looks like they’ve been had bad,” was the verdict, “we have to help them.”

The two ships came closer together, lines were at the ready to be cast.

Daniel ran off, leaped up the stairs to the bridge three steps at a time and stared at the map. “Ulaman! Don’t!”

From the insides of the merchant ships, several dozens of men streamed onto the deck and quick as spiders climbed aboard the Pricosine. It was not a fair battle, the crew of the eight-master being outnumbered at least five to one, and all the pirates seasoned in combat.

Despite the resistance they put up, the crew were taken prisoner and they all were tied up and gagged, left lying on the deck.

Ulaman was dragged to the side where he could sit up. An athletic man in leather pants and a long blue coat, wearing a captain’s cap, leisurely walked up to him. Six thick braids with brown hair swung on his back, his feet were in sturdy brown boots. “You, it seems, were the captain of this ship.”

The gag prevented Ulaman from talking.

“Yes, my man. I am the captain now. See, I have the hat to prove it. Birkle is the name. Birkle Asciza. You have never heard of me, and that is because nobody knows me. You see, Birkle Asciza leaves no traces. And no witnesses.”

27. Walking the plank

A massive thud made everyone look, as far as they were able to turn their heads.

“Ah, look who’s here. It’s my Bagel.” Birkle, the pirate captain, grinned as a large monkey-like animal came walking over. It had just jumped onto the deck. The most remarkable trait of the animal that showed it was not a monkey were its six arms. Or legs. Limbs.

Daniel knew that Bagel in the local speech of the planet stood for Feather. This Feather did not look like it should be messed with. It looked like sixty pounds of bad luck if you did.

“Come here, Bagel,” the pirate captain said. “You may get to play with these people.”

The monkey walked on its hind legs and sat down not far from Birkle. It looked around, and Daniel was convinced it was intelligent. This, however, did not have to be a good thing.

Birkle turned back to Ulaman. “You know, former captain, you are in luck. You and your people look strong and healthy. Fortunately, I am looking for people that can do the odd chore for me. In return for their work, they get to live. Of course, it is obvious what happens if they don’t work.”

He pulled something from his pocket and threw it to the monkey. It caught it and devoured the thing, an apple-like fruit, in seconds. “I am a strong believer in setting examples, former captain. To make a point, so to speak. Things like that speak to the imagination.”

Some of the pirates yelled very descriptive ideas of how to set an example, roaring with brutal laughter, but a fierce look of their leader made the lot be quiet. He reached into a pocket of his coat and took something. It was a piece of red plastic, Daniel first thought, but as it glistened he decided it had to be a ruby. Birkle placed the ruby on Ulaman’s head. “Flat side up, dear former captain, means the example will be dealt with by my little pet here, the Bonto. In a fair fight, of course. Sparkling side up means that the example will be left to the plank.”

Daniel wished he had to wonder what the example would be, but it was plain and obvious. Someone was going to die. He blamed himself for not seeing the faulty course of the ship sooner. It was his job to know, to see and to warn Ulaman in time, and he had failed. Frantically he started to squirm, to get out of the ropes that kept him down.

The pirate looked. “Oh. Look at that. We have a really lively one here.” He smiled at Daniel’s futile attempts for a while, but Daniel got tired and found it was no use. Birkle snarled something in a dialect Daniel didn’t understand. The kick in the kidneys came as a extremely painful surprise. The pirate captain seemed to become impatient. “Come on, former captain…” He slapped Ulaman in the face, making the ruby fall. “Oh. Now that is really too bad…”

Birkle picked up the ruby. “Sparkly side up. Looks like Bagel here is out of luck today.” He leaned over the railing and yelled something about the plank being prepared. This was worrying. The really unnerving part was the cheer from the pirates’ ship. The man in the long coat turned and pointed. “We’ll take him.”

’Him’ was Daniel.

All the crew members of the Pricosine were lined up along the side of their ship, each one kept under control by the ropes and a few pirates. All, except Daniel. Daniel’s ropes were untied, except for his hands that were bound on his back. And the gag was still in his mouth. He had been taken to the pirates’ ship and pushed down to sit on a crate. Birkle stood in front of him.

“You know, if you had not been so wild, maybe you would have been one of the unlucky ones watching how another of you is getting killed,” the pirate said, fiddling with his cap. “Now you are the unlucky one who gets killed. Life is hard, and life on sea is worse. It’s hard and wet. And for some it’s very short.” The man got up and gestured at some of the men around him.

Daniel was roughly pulled off the crate and dragged over the ship, where a plank was waiting. The piece of Polychlon was pulled back, like a slingshot, with two heavy ropes. There was something like an open coffin mounted on the end. That was where the pirates dropped Daniel into, after untying his hands and tying up his feet instead. One villain held his hand over Daniel’s throat and squeezed. Daniel had to fight for air, but as he tried to yank the hand away, two other pirates grabbed his arms and nearly broke them on the coffin’s sides.

Aboard the Pricosine, the crew was forced to watch what was happening. Powerless, unarmed.

Birkle sat on a side of the coffin. “I like you. You fight back. Care to join us?”

“Never!” Daniel tried to say. The pressure on his throat increased.

“I thought so.” The pirate captain got up. “Have a nice death.” He disappeared out of Daniel’s view. A few moments later his arms and throat were released, and a sickening movement of the plank started as the two ropes were cut.

Aboard the Pricosine and on the pirates’ ship there was a loud cheering as the invaders saw Daniel being flung out of the coffin and land hard on the water.

Bilk, in his anger, tried to use his head to punch down the pirates that held him there to watch. One of them went down. The other one pulled a Polychlon dirk from his belt and stabbed the sailor until he was dead.

-=-=-

Daniel woke up. He was floating. He was also extremely cold. He remembered the feeling of being catapulted off the pirate ship, seeing the water come close, and from there — nothing. As he got his head together, he decided that he was floating because of the air-filled pockets that were still in his arms and legs. Bless you, Rhonda.

His legs were still tied. Why the pirates had done that and left his hands free was a puzzle Daniel did not want to solve then and there. It took him a while to get his legs free as his undercooled muscles also ached from the impact on the water, but he got it done. It wore him out pretty well, so he went back to floating again until his breath was less ragged. He peeked at where the sun was.

“Not good,” he mumbled to himself. Evening was not far away. Knowing that was something the experience on the Pricosine had taught him, but it was not much of a help now. He’d have to find a way out of the water. Either to the shore, or on a boat. Daniel looked around. The boat option fell away. He had no idea where the Pricosine was, nor how long he had been floating around.

Again he spotted the sun. He worked his brain hard, trying to remember the map, their course, what was the direction of the sun towards the evening. “Where is that bloody shore,” he yelled out at the sky.

“It is a mere sixty leagues to shore,” Ulaman had said.

Daniel gave it his best shot and started swimming.

-=-=-

It had become dark. He was swimming again. He had taken several breaks, simply because he could not go on anymore, and now he was starting a slight panic. He had not been out on deck enough to thoroughly know the stars and constellations. As darkness set in, he had tried to locate some significant stars, but he was now so tired that he couldn’t see straight anymore. He just swam until he was drained, floated until the fear and despair struck again and swam some more.

This had gone on for a long time, when he heard a rush in the water. Disoriented as he was, he just turned and turned as the rush came closer. Waves washed over him as he tried to scream, already envisioning a ship crashing into him, running him over and leaving him dead.

Instead of the expected massive Polychlon keel, a thick soft bulk pushed into him. He grabbed wildly, panicking that this might be the last thing he would do on this planet. Or anywhere else. His numbed fingers found hold on something hard and solid. Daniel struggled, his mind commanding his almost unresponsive body. It took him a long time, but whatever it was that had bumped into him was now beneath him and it kept him out of the water. He was too exhausted to even worry about how long that would be. He fainted.

When Daniel woke up, there was light. There also was a significant amount of warmth on his back. He turned around to catch the sunlight on his still wet front. He felt a slight tremor below him which startled him. Waves, a bump, climbing, it slowly came back to him. He shivered. He became aware of the rush of waves, the same sound he had heard before the thing bumped into him.

Daniel forced himself to sit up and look. He sat on a Fringy. He was certain of it. One of the animals Ulaman had described to Rayko and himself as she was sailing with the Pricosine. It was one of the fish that looked like a rock and did not dive. At that point it all became too much for Daniel. He broke down and cried. He cried until he fell asleep.

-=-=-

“Hey! Hello!”

The sounds hit Daniel.

“Hello out there! Do you hear me?!”

Awareness fought like a champion to regain its seat. Daniel opened his eyes.

“Hello! If you are alive, can you show me so?”

Slowly Daniel sat up and stared around.

“Hello… Here, behind you…”

While his body protested, Daniel turned. He saw a row boat. There were two men in it.

“Hello there. You will have to jump into the water. We can’t get near the Fringy to pick you up!”

Daniel waved. At least he did his best to wave. Then he just let himself roll off the animal that had saved his life. The men in the row boat paddled quickly over to him and dragged him into the boat.

“Are you okay, sir?”

“Never better,” Daniel said, and laughed. The insanity and the hardship of the past days needed a way out.

The men in the row boat took him to the fishing boat from where Daniel had been spotted. They fed him and checked him as well as they could, and then they put him in a bunk. Miraculously, his hydger was still in his possession, somehow it had gotten stuck inside his shirt.

When Daniel woke up, the fishing boat was on its way to port. After more food and a shot of something like brandy, he felt better. The sailors had handed him fresh clothes that sort of fit and he told the captain of the ship about what had happened.

“Good grief, man, it is impossible that you survived that! How did you get on that Fringy?”

“I don’t really remember. It was just there.”

“You, sir, are the love of the power of the waves.”

Daniel had heard that expression before. It meant someone who was very lucky at sea. It made him wonder, after all the things that had happened to him already. At sea.

He tried using the hydger several times, but there was no signal. The captain, upon noticing his attempts, told him he’d have to wait until they were ashore. “Our town is not a large rich one like Zoroon, sir, the hydger signals are very weak here.”

So Daniel had to wait, and spent his hours worrying about the fate of the men and women aboard the Pricosine.

Properly fed, and warm again, he jumped off the fishing boat, after thanking the crew. They had offered to assist him, but all Daniel wanted to do was get in range of a signal so he could contact his boss.

28. You’re out

Clelem took the news in a strange way. Daniel got the feeling that the man suddenly was ice cold inside and wondered why that was. There was no emotion at all. Not even an inquiry after Daniel’s health, or how he had survived.

“I will arrange for the fare for a carriage to take you back to Skarak, Mr. Zacharias. You will report to the President of the Ship Owners Society at once after arriving. Measures will be taken.” That was all.

Report to Seigner Skinsh ko Talush? Why him? Why not to Clelem?

As he sat in the carriage, he had acquired a basket with food for the long trip, he kept wondering about the strange attitude of Clelem. At first he had seemed such an admirable person. The strange way in which he had made his daughter be his personal hostess during the soirée had already struck him as odd, but this last exchange was totally incomprehensible.

No matter from what way he approached the issue, he could make heads nor tails from it, so he went back to worrying about his friends.

The carriage stopped in several places to take in a few more people who were also travelling to or towards Skarak. It surprised Daniel somewhat, as he had never needed to share a carriage, but it did make sense.

It took Daniel little over a day to reach Skarak. Sleeping in the carriage was not too difficult, but he desperately wanted to shower and put on some clean, fitting clothes. Still, he first made his way to the ship-shaped building of the Ship Owners Society.

Varning was there to open the door to him. “Mr. Zacharias. We have been expecting you. How horrible an incident, how tragic.” The man shook his head and quickly went ahead, leading him to the office where Waldo Skinsh ko Talush was waiting for him.

“Mr. Zacharias. Take a seat. Do you need some tea? Sturt? Something stronger?” The man looked genuinely concerned.

“No, Seigner, thank you.” Daniel told his story, while in the back of his mind the wonder remained why Clelem, the owner of the ship, was not there. Perhaps it was the way things were done on the planet, but still it bothered him. The more as only several days ago he had been invited to a party at the man’s house. Again the strangeness around Clelem’s action regarding his daughter tugged at him. Daniel tried to shake it off and focus on the matter at hand.

Seigner Skinsh ko Talush looked at Daniel in silence, after hearing the account. He was pondering and evaluating. “Mr. Zacharias,” he finally said, “it is with no pleasure at all that I have to tell you that Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem has asked me to relieve you from your assignment with respect to his ships. He does not feel you are adding to the safety on board, not to the security against pirates.”

Daniel felt the blood pull away from his face. He had successfully managed to repel that first attack. It had almost cost him his life. Because of that very fact, Clelem had invited him to the soirée. And now this?

The president seemed to guess his thoughts. “You are certainly entitled to feeling rage, Mr. Zacharias. I am quite surprised about this decision also, but it is in the end the Ship Owner who decides.” The man went through some papers on his desk until he found an envelope. “I have prepared this document for you, sir. Would you please be so kind to read its contents and tell me if you agree and accept this?”

Daniel took the envelope. “Would you care to first tell me what is in it, sir?”

The president smiled. “Please, first read the letter, Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel opened the envelope and pulled out the letter. There was only a small amount of text on it.

’Hereby we declare that Mr. Daniel Zacharias will be released from duty on the ships of Seigner Clelem Dandra ko Galem.

Mr. Zacharias’ release is honourful. He will retain his current wages for a maximum duration of six months, starting at the date written at the bottom of this document.

Signed: Skinsh ko Talush, President.’

Daniel read it again, then looked at the man opposite him. “I don’t understand, sir. Seigner Dandra ko Galem is apparently angry with me, to say the least. And then this?” He put the paper on the desk.

Seigner Skinsh ko Talush nodded. “Yes. He is quite angry indeed. He was very much opposed to this statement, but I feel he is in error. You have done what you could. You put your life in danger for his ships and crew more than once.” The man got to his feet. “You are a good man, Mr. Zacharias. I am saddened by all the events lately that have made your life here not a more pleasurable one. I would suggest that you return to your home and take care of yourself. The authorities have already been contacted with a formal request that a search be done for the Pricosine. That is, for now, all I can do. If there are developments, either on the ship or on a new position for you, I will inform you.”

Daniel did not grasp the situation. Did not want to. “I want to help find the Pricosine, sir. The pirate that tossed me, that kidnapped the crew, he owes me. Dearly.”

The president of the Ship Owners Society came from behind his desk and put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder, a sign of affection Daniel would not have thought possible in this man. “Mr. Zacharias, please. You are in no shape to go out again. Please take my advice, go home, recover. I will contact you if anything becomes clear, or when we need you. You have my solemn word on this.”

Daniel gave in. There was no way he could fight back from here, evidently. He signed the paper, watched the president sign it also, and tucked the envelope in his pocket.

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate what you do for me. I really do.”

“That is quite alright, Mr. Zacharias. Be well.”

They shook hands, and then Varning showed Daniel out. “Good luck, sir. And if you don’t mind me saying so: you are a hero.”

On the way home, Daniel felt far from a hero.

In an office, a grey-haired man tore up an envelope, and with it the dishonourable discharge letter Clelem Dandra ko Galem had insisted on.

-=-=-

Daniel stepped out of the shower, towelled himself dry and dressed casually. He was not in a mood to go out. From his chair he stared out of the window, unable to take his eyes from the empty spot in the harbour where the Pricosine should be. Again, no — still he worried about his friends on board. That crazy pirate son of a bitch probably was capable of anything, judging from what he had done to Daniel. He ate some things from the basket he’d gotten, then lay down on his bed.

Somewhat to his horror, Daniel discovered he had been sleeping. The light and shadows in his room told him the day was on its way to a close. He stared at the ceiling, a million thoughts running through his head. Where was Rhonda? Where was the ship? What the hell was wrong with him? What had made Clelem take this irrational decision? What was he going to do next?

Daniel got up from the bed to find out that just about every part of his body ached. Glandrine was all good and fine, but Bactine still beat it in many respects. He picked up the hydger from the table. The box was amazing, he thought. It had survived the ordeal in the ocean, it just had needed to dry out and then functioned like new.

Daniel flipped it open and switched on the small round display. In thought he paged through the list of contacts. As the relay address for the star base appeared, he stopped and looked at it. Yes. Maybe he should send them a message. Report about this failure, and ask to be reassigned. With some luck, he wryly thought, he could be the errand boy for Troy, on the shit planet, Trados Noxos. Now there was a thought. And Malcolm would love that.

No. He closed the hydger and put it down. He did not deserve that. There had to be a different way to get out of this mess. Waiting for actions on the end of Seigner Skinsh ko Talush was one thing, but that did not mean he’d have to sit around on his butt and let the world arrange things for him. He’d never done that, so why start now?

First he should get out of his current state of mind and get some constructive thinking done. Daniel knew that his room was not the place for that, so he hoisted himself in one of his suits and then made his way to one of the restaurants he knew and liked.

As he walked down the street, his goal already in view, the hydger in his pocket made itself known. Daniel found a quiet spot to the side of the street and answered the call. To his surprise the sign of Dandra ko Galem was on the display, but there was no name information. His curiosity was pinched. He flipped the switch.

“Mr. Zacharias. I am glad you found the time to reply.” Warlem, Clelem’s son, was looking at Daniel from the small screen.

“Seigner Dandra ko Galem. I am very surprised.”

Warlem smiled. “I understand. It was not hard to discover what had happened to you and the ship of my father. And my father was also quite loud about his renewed opinion about you, which I think is entirely inappropriate.” The young man looked sideways, as if making sure he could speak freely. “I would like to meet with you, Mr. Zacharias. To personally apologise for what has been done to you.”

Daniel was flabbergasted. This was not what he had expected at all. “That is very kind of you, sir. I was on my way for supper. Is there a way we could combine meeting and a meal?”

“Of course,” Warlem said. “I would be honoured if you allow me to invite you for supper. Let me send you the address of a good restaurant. Call a carriage, expenses will be covered, and I hope to see you in, let’s say, half an hour?”

Daniel looked at the entrance of the restaurant that the carriage had delivered him at. It looked as if just watching the door would already cost credits.

Inside, Warlem was already waiting. He treated Daniel to a magnificent meal, as they talked about all kinds of things, like justice and opportunities to get by on this planet. When Daniel brought up the idea of just quitting the whole thing and and moving away to his sister’s area, Warlem advised against that.

“There are so many ways to do things, Daniel. Running away will not help you, I am certain. I believe there is many a ship owner who will employ you, despite of what happened — I mean because of what you did. It is finding the right one, one that can influence this man, Skinsh something, of the Society.”

“I am not sure if that is the way to do things, Warlem. After all, I failed in my job. That will be held against me.”

“Listen, Daniel, my friend. You almost single-handedly beat off the pirates in their first attack. It almost killed you, yet you were still around and willing to take them on again. If that does not make you a hero in many a man’s eye, then I am not of this world.”

Daniel pondered that for a while. The memory of meeting Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy waved at him. That might be a way back in. After all, the man had offered him a position.

29. Need job, will sail

After all the serious topics, Warlem changed to lighter material. He brought up the soirée and how much he had enjoyed Daniel’s being there. “Oh, I forgot. My sister does very much not send her best.” The man’s face revealed that he was proud and amused to convey that bit of information.

Daniel grinned. “I am sure. She was not very happy, that evening.”

Warlem nodded. “Yet, after you had left, she mentioned something to me, in private. She told me that you had saved her, and she felt very good about that. Even though her feelings toward you remain hostile.” His grinning face told Daniel what that was all about. Gaguran Slindris, the man who was stalking her.

“She is really bothered by the attention of her father’s serving man, isn’t she?”

“You have no idea, Daniel. I would like my father to send the man walking. It is one thing to see my sister so worked about about someone, this being you, but it is quite another to see her be frustrated with this unwanted attention.”

“Have you mentioned that to your father?”

Warlem looked at Daniel. “Tell my father. No. I am the family drop-out, Daniel. Nobody listens to me anyway. And nobody tells my father anything.”

Daniel promptly recalled the moment where Rayko had refused to accompany him for the evening, and the way Clelem had simply shoved her over, not taking no for an answer even from his daughter. He nodded. “Yes, so it seems.”

“Believe me, Daniel. The best way to stay alive around these parts is not to cross my father.”

Now that was quite an allegation, Daniel thought. And that from his own son.

Warlem emptied his glass. “It is becoming late, Daniel. I should not be keeping you any longer, but please know that I very much enjoyed this talk and getting to know you better.”

Daniel took the hint with pleasure. He was getting tired again. Already.

The men said their goodbyes. Daniel, on the way home, had plenty of things to think about again.

-=-=-

Daniel had gone to bed early. Because of that he woke up early. Far too early. His head was awake, his body refused to play along. As a result, he was not able to run away from the thoughts that came to him. Thoughts about his brother and his sister, and how well they were doing. Inevitably there were the thoughts about how Malcolm would be laughing at him about his current situation. At one point he had made up his mind: he was going to send a message to his sister and ask her if there was a good place near her where he could live. He’d file for some kind of disability with the military and retire. There would be something like a job for him somewhere to get through the days.

He turned around in his bed. The movement threw down the card house of thoughts he had built so carefully. He could not give up like that. There were people who might be counting on him. But were they? They might assume him to have died. Maybe the people he wanted to rescue were dead already. Maybe they were already being rescued by the police of the planet. Or by people Skinsh ko Talush had summoned. Or not?

In the end it was the storm of maybes and other unknowns that woke him up for real. He kicked the covers from him and rubbed his face to chase away the ghosts that were haunting him.

Daniel got up and avoided looking out the window as he made for the bathroom where he splashed cold water in his face to make sure the haunting was over. On the way back into the room, he stopped at the window and stared. He missed the ship and knew there was little he could do.

As he got dressed, he recalled the talk he’d had with Warlem. Maybe visiting Huajo was an idea…

After breakfast, he took his hydger and looked up the number of the ship owner. After a hesitation, he requested the connection.

“Mr. Zacharias. May I say that I am surprised?” The round face of Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy appeared in the screen.

Daniel had not expected that the man would actually reply, but there he was. “Good morning, Seigner. I am certain that you are surprised about my call and I hope you forgive me.”

“Naturally, sir. Had I not forgiven you, I would not have accepted the call.” The face looked friendly and waiting.

“I would like to speak with you, sir.”

Huajo nodded. “Yes. I can see that you want that. As a matter of fact, I would appreciate a word with you as well. Would you be able to come to my residence?”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

Not long after that, Daniel was in a carriage, on his way to the Zoroon community where also Clelem’s house was. The trip took him along much of the same road, but instead of rolling up the path to where the floater platform for Clelem’s house was, the carriage pushed on along the wider road along the waterline, until it reached a very nice house.

Daniel walked up a slight slope towards a fence. There was a gate in it, open and welcoming. He wondered why the house was built so close to the water. One good storm would wreak havoc on the building, he was sure.

He approached the reception building that was located in a small front side garden and held his ring in front of the copper plate. The door opened for him. Inside there was nobody to greet him, which was somewhat of a surprise. He put away his coat and walked through the transparent tunnel he had already expected.

Daniel grinned. He was becoming something like a native. From the tunnel he saw that the front side garden was continued behind the reception house. It struck him as a wilderness more than anything else; the difference with the stylish, almost manicured garden at the Dandra ko Galem house was almost painful.

At the end of the tunnel, a servant, a woman, was waiting for him. She greeted him and led him through the house to an office. The house style showed the character of its owner. Everything was large, almost pompous, flamboyant and welcoming. The office was located outside the actual house, in a sphere that was made of the same transparent material as the tunnel he had come through. Behind a large white desk, Huajo was shuffling papers, without real zeal. As the servant woman announced Daniel’s arrival, the man looked relieved.

“Mr. Zacharias!” He hoisted his impressive figure from the equally impressive chair and held out his hand. “Do sit, do sit.”

Daniel shook the man’s hand and took the offered seat.

After being served tea and a scary amount of cookies, Huajo said: “I have heard of your adventures, Mr. Zacharias. You have been through quite a few. There are rumours already that you are the embodiment of Flish.”

Daniel’s expression told Huajo that Flish did not mean much to him.

“Flish, Mr. Zacharias, is one of our mythical apparitions. It is said about Flish that there were only few things that could actually kill him. And as you have lived through two encounters with pirates…”

“I see. Thank you for explaining that, Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy.”

“Now, please tell me, Mr. Zacharias, what it is you want to see me about.”

Daniel told about his situation, that he was out of a job, yet on the payroll of the Society. “I recalled your words about possibly have an opportunity for me, the time we met on the docks.”

Huajo slowly nodded, while munching away the cookies. “Yes. I recall that meeting well. Alas, sir, at this moment there are things requiring my attention that are not so much concerning my ships. I am, as you may not know, a member of the Zoroon Steering Committee and there are… No. I should not bore you with political nonsense I have brought upon myself.” Another handful of cookies vanished. “I do understand your predicament, Mr. Zacharias. At the moment, however, my hands are tied. The situation around the pirating has become rather volatile. The Ship Owners Society is fully aware of all that has happened, and the displeasure Clelem Dandra has shown makes it quite difficult to find a new position for you. It is quite unfair, I know. You are, unfortunately, caught in a game of politics. And there are some other… how should I say… circumstances concerning Clelem Dandra ko Galem… that need to be addressed.”

The hopes Daniel had when he came here were stomped deeper into the ground of NGC6637-VIII with every sentence the fat man spoke. “I understand, sir. At least I think.”

“Try not to worry, Mr. Zacharias. Things like these can change overnight. And I may call on you sooner than you expect.”

Daniel nodded, without much confidence. He finished his tea and got up. “I thank you for your time, sir. It was enlightening at least.”

Huajo burst out in laughing. “Nobody has ever accused me of bringing enlightening, Mr. Zacharias! I thank you for this, you have certainly made my day a good one!”

Daniel grinned an obligatory grin. Then he remembered something. “Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy, do you know about sticks that can paralyse a person?”

Huajo frowned. “In fact I do. Nasty things. They make a person feel very very bad. Why this question?”

Daniel explained about the attack at Maliser Park, leaving out most of the details. “I wonder why sailors don’t have these things with them. They would be an excellent weapon against pirates.”

“I see. The powers of the planet are really after you, Mr. Zacharias. As you probably know, the water of the planet prohibits many things. Metal, real wood, things like these are not granted a long life. The paralysing sticks fall into that same category. We have tried all we could, but none of them lasted more than a day aboard a ship.”

Daniel thanked Huajo for the reply. He shook the man’s hand and turned to leave.

“Oh… Mr. Zacharias…”

“Sir?”

“Please try not to end as our mythical hero Flish.”

“How did Flish end, sir?”

“He became a victim of the machinations of the gods.”

“I’ll do my best to avoid those, Seigner. Thank you for the warning.”

“I owe you this much, Mr. Zacharias. I look forward to meeting you again in a more favourable situation.”

Daniel left the house with a block of lead hanging from his gut.

He was glad for the decent weather. It took the carriage he had called for quite a while to get there; he’d have sworn he could walk back home in that time.

Huajo’s words kept churning in his mind. The man was aware of the paralysing sticks. He clearly knew where Maliser Park was. He certainly had the shape that would cause a cloak to stand out so wide. Could Huajo be the person that had- No, he rejected the thought immediately. That person had not limped about, and also had moved much faster than Huajo had done.

Or had it been Warlem? The poet, the family drop-out. He certainly would have reasons to go against his fathers reign. Or not… As long as his expenses were covered, the young man could probably do what he wanted. Which opened options, of course…

Whatever he tried, there was no way out of the maze that led him to the mysterious person that had attacked him. Another maze also prevented him to decide what he would do next.

30. Where Flish went wrong

The next day Daniel tried to think of something constructive to do. Something that would take his mind off the ghosts that were haunting him, and growing into obsessions. He had to get away from the monsters that made him feel powerless. Useless.

He was aware that the problem was inside his head, so, he deducted, he should try and fill that head with other things. But what?

In an impulse he picked up his hydger to call Tomlin. Maybe his friend had an idea. Or a job. He flipped the device open. The sound the cover made triggered something with him; it made him think of a remark Huajo had made about Flish. Flish, the mythical figure that the fat man had compared him to.

Yes, that could be something. Why shouldn’t he find out more about this mythical character Flish? He was here, on this planet, so he could just as well learn a bit more about it in his time off. Clelem had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Daniel anymore. Huajo had other things on his mind also, so what else was there to do?

As Daniel had plenty of time, he was making quite a fuss about his attire. He laughed at himself, ridiculing himself about it. He recalled how Rhonda and he had laughed these clothes, so long ago on star base. Rhonda. Where would she be now…

After assuring everything was in order, he went out. In the elevator he met a few people that were living in the same building. He had never had much contact with them, but whenever they met, they exchanged social politenesses.

Once outside, Daniel made his way to the library. It was an ancient place, with books equally ancient, many of them even older. The smell of old leather, fading ink and yellow paper greeted him as he entered the large hall. He had been there a few times before, and Daniel had learnt to appreciate the scent and the feel of the heavy books.

One of the librarians helped him find his way around the mythological section, where he pulled a few books from shelves. “Here you go, sir. These volumes should get you started nicely.”

Daniel hauled the books to an available table and hoped the thud they made did not get him thrown out. Nobody seemed to mind, though. He opened the first book and started going through the index, locating the only chapter on Flish quickly.

As he was slowly progressing through the chapter, the book was written in the planet’s own language, someone sat down opposite him at the table. He was almost through a paragraph, so he did not want to look up. That would mean losing track of the tale, and it was fascinating in that Flish had been a boatsman. Also Daniel did not want to lose the battle with the language.

When finally he peeked over, he saw senator Sygra Dirrit ko Asac sitting at the table. “Oh. Senator. Good morning.”

“Good morning to you, Mr… Zachaiis?” The thin man already had his face set for apology.

“Zacharias, but you were close,” Daniel smiled. “Such a nice surprise.”

The senator nodded. “The pleasure is mine, sir. I was not aware that you were interested in that mythology.”

Daniel grinned and told him what he had heard about Flish from Huajo.

“Ah. I see. Yes, Mr. Zacharias, in that light I can see how people can arrive at that idea.” Sygra smiled.

“Do you know more about Flish?” Daniel asked.

“Not very much. It is not my… philosophy. Mine is not so related to things of the water.”

Daniel had never given religion much thought. Not for himself, and not here on the planet. Now he understood that he had been neglecting something. Ignoring something, to say the very least.

Sygra took the seat next to Daniel and looked over the page he had been reading.

As the senator skimmed over the page, Daniel frowned. There was a remarkable smell coming from the man’s clothes, and he suddenly remembered smelling that also when he had first met the senator, at that wretched party. Senator or not, Daniel mused, he had a horrible taste in cologne.

“Yes, indeed,” Sygra nodded. “This page almost sums up what I know about Flish. He was the son of a storm god, as it says here. He wanted to lay down the storms, to make life easier for mankind. He succeeded for quite a long time. But of course, the other gods for weather did not appreciate Flish’s attempts to undermine their work, so they worked together and that became the downfall of Flish.”

Daniel frowned. “Somewhere this comparison does not work for me, sir. I am not trying to lay down storms.”

Sygra laughed silently. “You are here to counter pirates, aren’t you? Don’t you think that pirates are a storm in their own way? And what about the Ship Owner Society, Mr. Zacharias? Don’t you agree that they are in the position to dictate the weather on the seas?”

Daniel frowned again. He was not convinced yet. After all, it were the pirates that made the storms. Weren’t they? Was there something the senator knew and did not tell him?

Sygra took a small locket, his hydger, that hung from his neck and looked inside it. “Oh. I am very sorry, Mr. Zacharias, but I have to end this enjoyable meeting. My presence is required elsewhere.” The man got to his feet. “I wish you well, sir, and I am looking forward to meeting you again.”

Daniel shook the senator’s hand and watched him leave. He returned to the book, but his thoughts were not with the page. He had new things to think about. New ghosts were preparing themselves.

-=-=-

As he sipped his sturt, the hydger started rattling. Daniel put the cup down. The screen showed a black triangle and no name. The black triangle again. “Who are you and what do you want?” he chanced. He did not feel like being polite; the cloaked person had not been that either.

“My name is not important.” The brushing sound was with the voice again. It was the mysterious person. “I am sorry our last meeting ended so rudely. I call concerning the capturing of the Pricosine.”

This was news. “Talk. I am listening.”

A waiter came and put up a privacy screen around the table.

“The deal is simple. I have a ship for you. It is small. You find people to sail it. Maybe you can find the people from the Pricosine.” The brushing noise made it hard to understand the already distorted voice.

“What is this to you? Why are you after all this?” Daniel wanted to know.

“I have reasons. What do you say? Do you want the ship?” The stranger was not willing to open up. The offer was interesting, though. Daniel was dying to do something.

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“You don’t. But you can. I assure you this.”

“Our meeting hardly gave me reason to, you know.”

There was a short silence on the end of the stranger. “I apologised for this. This is a business offer. I supply a ship. You supply a crew. Yes or no?”

“Yes.” Daniel had to say it. He had to.

“Good. How long do you need to find people?”

“I don’t know. A few days at least. How many people do I need to sail the boat?”

“Three. I will contact you again.” The black triangle disappeared, the conversation had ended.

Daniel stared at the round display in disbelief. What was going on here, and how had he gotten into this? It was obvious he needed help now. He went through his contacts.

“Daniel, good afternoon. What’s the matter, old friend?” Tomlin Barker was cheerful.

Daniel told him what had happened.

“Oh. Wow. That’s quite a lot to handle, you old space rat. Never thought you would be able to ride yourself into this kind of operations.” The face of his friend showed surprise and concern. “So you need three people who can do sea-things. I may know someone. Can you come to my house this evening? Around dinner time? I know you want to get going as soon as you can, but I have things at hand here, and I need to make some calls.”

“I’ll be there,” Daniel said. “And Tomlin… Thank you. I know I am stepping out of line, dropping this on you. It’s my mess, not yours.”

“Shut up, Daniel. We help each other, okay? You get your butt to my house tonight and we’ll talk further.”

Daniel sighed as the display went grey. At least that was something. Now who the hell was this stranger? He had offered a ship. So it almost had to be a ship owner. Someone who hated Clelem, probably. But also someone who was concerned about the people on the ship. It had to be Huajo. Or perhaps the president of the Society, or someone who acted for him.

As the waiter took away the privacy screen, Daniel ordered a drink. He needed one.

-=-=-

Daniel hopped out of the carriage that had taken him to Tomlin’s house and quickly walked up to the reception building. He wasn’t sure if he could get in. His doubt was confirmed; his ring did not open the door. It did notify someone inside.

Tomlin himself opened the door. “Daniel, good to see you. Come in.” The man did not smile. He took Daniel to a small study.

“I called around, Daniel. It’s hard to find some folks that want to play with us, but-”

“Us?” Daniel was surprised about that, even while he had hoped for it.

“Yes. Us. I did manage to find a few people that will help. One of them is a former soldier who also lives here. A friend of mine, I helped him get a place here, so he owes me something. There’s also an older captain who wants to kick some butt. Do you think that works?”

“Hmm. The stranger said we need three people to sail the boat. The captain will be fine, but a soldier? And I take it that you count yourself in as well?”

Tomlin nodded. “Yes. And I don’t take a no on that. It is best I can do, Daniel. The captain knows boats, and you know something too. If you yell at Gerolf and me, we can do this.”

Daniel appreciated everything Tomlin was doing, but he did not have a great feeling about the makeshift crew. Given the situation, however, there was little else to go from. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“Great. Now come, say hello to the family, join us for dinner and try to put your worries aside, at least for the evening.”

After dinner, the children had been sent to bed, Daniel asked Tomlin and his wife Nadinka about Flish.

Tomlin laughed. “Good grief, Daniel, what are you getting yourself into? Becoming a real sailor here, including their beliefs?”

Nadinka wasn’t so loud. “Do accept my apology for my husband’s rudeness, Daniel. I think it is admirable for you to venture out and learn about the different religions and belief systems on our planet.”

Tomlin looked at his wife. “I am sorry, my dear Nadinka. I forgot myself.”

Nadinka smiled at him. “As you do so often. Daniel, how did you learn about Flish?”

Daniel told her that he had met Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy, who had mentioned the figure, and how he had met the senator in the library who had explained more about Flish.

“You know senator Dirrit ko Asac?” Tomlin and Nadinka were amazed. “You do get around, Daniel.”

“Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy is a good man,” Nadinka added. “He knows the senator very well, they are both doing many good things for their communities.”

“Yes,” Tomlin added, “just too bad about the rumours.”

“What rumours?” Daniel asked.

“Maybe we should not-” Tomlin frowned at Nadinka.

“We should, Tomlin. You see, Daniel, there are rumours that the senator is… rather weak when it comes to resisting certain substances.”

Something crawled around in Daniel’s stomach. “Substances?” He was not sure if he wanted to hear this.

“Drugs, Daniel. Not the heavy stuff, but still.” Tomlin sighed. “Of course, they are only rumours. For all we know they are only brought into the world by people who want to harm him. That’s often how it goes with public figures, right?”

“Yes, that is true.” Daniel remembered the funny smell which he had dismissed as a bad cologne earlier that day.

“He is a great man, Daniel, and I almost envy you for knowing him personally,” Tomlin said. He picked up the bottle with local cognac. “Care for another?”

“No, thank you Tomlin. Really, I should be getting back.”

“Okay, Daniel, suit yourself. You can sleep here if you want. We have plenty of space,” Tomlin said, but Daniel wanted to go home, to his own little part of the planet.

Tomlin and Nadinka waited in the door of the reception building until Daniel’s carriage was out of view, taken up by the darkness.

31. Action, where are you?

A good rest. That was what Daniel decided he’d had when he woke up. The talk with Tomlin and his wife, the evening away, it had done him well. The meal had been so copious that he decided to skip breakfast. Instead, he went outside and set off for a long walk. Tomlin had done what he could, getting people together. Now there was nothing to do that waiting for the mystery man to call again, and that would be through the hydger. As long as he had that thing with him, he would be fine.

With a newspaper under his arm, he had picked that up at a small stall, Daniel strolled along the waterline. He kept his back to the harbour. The sight of it was something he did not want to inflict on himself, there were too many memories there that were just waiting to jump him.

Instead, he looked at the water, and occasionally tried to figure out patterns in the cobblestone path he was walking over. A sudden thought made him grin. How old was this path? Would Flish have walked over it? It surprised him how many of his thoughts were revolving around this character.

Daniel reached a bench where he sat down. He opened the newspaper and looked through it. In the first days after his return to Skarak, there had been reports about the Pricosine being captured, and some articles had gone on a wild goose chase about the destiny of its sailors. Now there was nothing. How quickly people forgot and moved on, he thought. Same thing everywhere.

A smile curled his lips when suddenly he thought of Troy. How would he be doing on the planet of shit? Would he still be there? Or would he have found a way to leave that place already? And sergeant O’Shaughnessy? Burt?

Daniel took the hydger and started to fiddle with it, until he had the relay address for messages to the star base. He then frowned. “Don’t tell me…” He could not recall Burt’s address to receive messages. “Oh, bloody crap.” He did remember the address for Rhonda. Slowly he worked on getting the message into the machine.

’Hello Rhonda. How are you? Things here are definitely strange. Got thrown off a pirate ship. I want to write to Burt. Can you send me his address please, I lost it. I am very sorry that you left so quickly after patching me up, I really need to thank you. Again. Love, Daniel.’

He read the message again. He deleted one of the last two words. Then he sent the message. When it was gone he cursed himself for removing that one word.

Daniel put away the device, folded up the newspaper and continued his walk along the water. He tried to think of alternatives to saving the Pricosine crew, ignoring strongly the fact that they might already be dead. He tried to think of former comrades of the military who might be able to help. Because he had to do something.

He ended up in a restaurant he had not seen before. It was a small place, near the outskirts of Skarak. From where he sat, he had a beautiful view over the water. As the restaurant was small, the staff there ran out of free tables quickly.

“Excuse me, sir,” a waiter asked Daniel, “would you mind sharing your table?”

Daniel saw a charming lady waiting behind the man. “Oh, not at all. I’d be glad to share.”

“Thank you, sir. You are truly a gentleman,” the lady said as the waiter sat her down. She wore a simple, light blue dress. Her skin was very pale and a lot of it was visible from her shoulders down. Her dark hair was pinned up except for a few curls that seemed to have escaped the pins.

“I’d feel terrible, knowing that a lady had been kept waiting when there are seats available here,” Daniel said.

The lady, sending the waiter on his way with her order, smiled at Daniel, looking at him with big green eyes. “You do not sound like you are from here, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir.”

“You are correct, my lady. Allow me to introduce myself. Daniel Zacharias.”

“Daniel Zacharias… Oh! You are the man who fought a hundred pirates and lives to tell! How exciting!” The lady clasped her hands together for a moment. “My name is Melia Rasha ko Halepoi.”

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Rasha ko Halepoi,” Daniel said, being utmost courteous. “And the truth about the pirates is quite different from what you seem to have heard.”

“Miss Rasha ko Halepoi,” she said, “and I would be honoured if you would call me Melia.”

“Only if you call me Daniel,” he smiled.

“I’d be delighted. Daniel.”

They chatted as they were eating, Daniel told her a few things about how things with the pirates had really happened.

Melia was surprised and excited and looked very sad too, as she heard how he had managed to survive. “Some people I know, Daniel,” she said as she swiftly touched the back of his hand, “speak highly of you as they have heard the wrong truth. The one you saved me from. I am sure that they will think even more highly of you after living through all these ordeals.”

Melia was a very nice person, Daniel thought. She didn’t strike him as such a stuck up and pampered puppet as some of the women he had met here.

“I would never have thought of meeting you in person, Daniel. I am surprised that you are not out there, rescuing more ships and all these heroic things.”

Daniel shrugged. “There are things going on that I cannot influence at the moment. So I am free to spend my time the way I see fit.”

“Such a wonderful coincidence,” Melia said, “I am all free too this afternoon. A student cancelled her double lesson, and I doubt someone will call upon me on such short notice.”

“You are a teacher?”

“Yes,” she nodded as she picked up her teacup. “I teach music.” Somewhere she had mastered the art of smiling widely while sipping tea.

Daniel had once met someone who played a guitar. “What music do you teach, Melia? I must admit that I am quite the barbarian in that field.”

“Oh dear, Daniel.” Suddenly her hand rested on his. “I should do something about that then, shouldn’t I? I play and teach the horn-violin.”

“The… what?”

Melia giggled. “Oh, you. Have you never heard a horn-violin?”

“Until now, dear Melia, I had never even heard of it.”

Melia stared at him, her green eyes seemed to become pools of pity. “Now, really, Daniel.” She wrapped her hands around one of his and held it. “I’ll make sure you get educated. I hope you will like that.”

Daniel was glad with the attention of the pretty woman and her interesting occupation. “I would really like to learn more about your music, Melia.”

After they had both finished, Daniel insisted on paying for Melia’s meal. She seemed completely surprised and not used to that. Before walking out, Daniel hesitantly offered her his arm, which she gladly accepted.

“I am not sure if this is a proper thing to ask, Daniel,” Melia said, “I have never been one of the women here that do the proper thing. But would you come with me, so I can show you my instruments? And show you how to play them?”

Daniel was not sure what to answer for a few moments. He had met this woman something like an hour ago and now she proposed this. “I am sure I’d be delighted, Melia.”

“Oh, good!” She squeezed his arm for a moment. She told him that she lived not very far from the restaurant, and that it would be a very nice walk as the weather was all kinds of wonderful. “We can cross through the streets with the shops, which is always nice,” she chatted, “and from there it is mere minutes.”

Arm in arm they strolled through a public garden, where Melia pointed out all kinds of flowers. She proved to be very knowledgeable about them, telling him their names, where they came from, and about the healing powers that was in some of them. “You see that pink one, with the long drooping petals? It is poisonous, but only the small petals that are in the centre. The ones that are so brightly coloured. The rest are safe.”

“Why would you have poisonous flowers in a public garden?” Daniel wondered. “That is dangerous.”

“Everyone on the planet knows about them,” Melia answered.

“And people like me, who don’t know about them?” Daniel looked back at the flowers they had passed.

“They should read the sign at the entrance, Daniel, the one that says you should not touch the plants.”

“That is so unfair, Melia,” Daniel said, wondering where the words suddenly came from, “how can I look at a sign when there is such a pretty woman walking next to me?”

She stopped walking and beamed at his words. “That is so sweet, Daniel. Maybe you feel it is a bit more fair if the woman is pretty enough for you not to notice the flowers?”

Daniel smiled and touched her cheek. “The flowers are no match for you, Melia.”

A few people who walked through the garden looked at them, eyebrows were raised, and Daniel couldn’t care less.

Melia’s face turned red quickly, as a blush spread over her cheeks. “You should not say that, Daniel. You don’t know me.”

“But I can see you. And the view is very nice from this distance.” Melia took his hand down and kept it under control by slipping her arm in his again. In silence they passed through the garden. Melia was rather flustered and forgot to point out more flowers.

They were only a few streets away from the rather busy shopping area. The beautiful weather had lured many people outside, and this made walking along a very slow affair. Melia proved to be no stranger here. She knew every shop and what they sold, the best places for bargains and the names of at least half the people they met in the streets. No one made any remark about Melia and Daniel walking together, they were greeted in the most friendly fashion.

“Oh Daniel, look, here!” Sudden excitement seemed to grab Melia as she almost dragged him to the window of a shop. It looked dark and murky inside, and at first Daniel was not sure what he should make of the few items in the window. He saw something that looked like half a violin, a few pieces that might have belonged to a trumpet or trombone, and strings. He knew strings. Guitars had strings.

“This is what I play most,” Melia said, an almost loving look on her face.

“Oh. Really.” Daniel stared at the items and wondered how that together might make an instrument. Or perhaps they were all separate instruments.

The woman at his side laughed. “Poor Daniel… you were not joking when you said you are a musical barbarian. Come, let me take you inside. You can meet Master Cloris who makes all the beautiful things.”

They entered the shop. It took Daniel’s eye a while to get used to the dark innards of the place, but Melia seemed to know her way around. Quickly he was taken to the back of the store where a wrinkled man in an amazing outfit was busy working on a large brass cylinder. The man wore brown pinstriped pants and a shirt that had lost all memory of being white. Over that he wore a thick leather apron. He had a large wrench in his hands with which he was tightening a big lump that was meant to keep a metal pipe in place.

Daniel stared at the man’s head, though. On his forehead there was the most extraordinary pair of goggles he had ever seen. They were made of copper or brass, had strange metal spikes protruding from it everywhere, and the whole thing was held in place with strips of leather.

“GRAAAAAAHHHHH”, the man, who had to be Master Cloris, groaned as he pulled the wrench with all his might. The wrench did not move. Nor did the cylinder. “Gotcha,” the man said. He tried to remove the wrench from the bolt. The wrench again did not move.

“Master Cloris?” Melia spoke gently, as if she was afraid to yank the man from his work.

The man looked. “Oh!! Melia!! How nice to see such a friendly face!” He came over to her and frantically shook her hand. “And who have you brought? Another pupil? Ah, yes, maybe you are interested in this new instrument I am making, wait, let me show you.”

The man scurried off without another word. As he was busy somewhere in the bowels of the back room, Melia giggled. “I’m sorry, Daniel, he is often like that.”

From unknown places there were sounds of heavy things being moved, light things falling on the ground and some subdued muttering. A loud bang made Melia scream and grab hold of Daniel, who instinctively put an arm around her.

32. No music and bars

“Oh… you are strong.” Melia leaned into Daniel for a moment. She had to raise her voice to overcome a strange loud spluttering sound that came from back where Master Cloris had gone to.

Daniel was about to worry, when the man came back. His goggles were around his neck now, a black streak was on his face. He pushed a strange contraption along on a rack with small wheels. The thing, again with leather straps and lots of metal, had a frightening number of buttons on either side, and there was a metallic flexible line hanging from it. The line bobbed at the huffing and puffing of whatever machine was spluttering out of sight.

“I’m terribly sorry about the little audible mishap back there,” said Master Cloris. He looked at Daniel. “You never told me your name, young man.”

“Daniel Zacharias, sir. Nice to meet you.”

“Oh yes, of course, I know. Now look here…” Master Cloris bent over the strange thing with the bobbing line.

Melia pulled Daniel closer to the contraption.

“I call this my steampordion. It uses air pressure to generate wind inside the instrument, and the wind goes past things inside there, and when I press these buttons here…” He pressed buttons. Something hissed in a very annoyed way and the flexible line sprung away from the instrument, wriggling like a snake with a bad temper.

Master Cloris stared at the jumping hose. “Oh. It still does that.” He shook his head and clogged away, to the back room. After only seconds the spluttering stopped, causing the mechanical snake to stop its wild dance.

The man came back. “This, I’m afraid, was not the best impression.” He reached for his forehead. Then he muttered something and stuck the goggles back where they apparently belonged. “Well now, my dear Melia, what brings you here today?”

Melia explained that she wanted to show Daniel around and meet Master Cloris.

“Daniel? Oh, yes, that’s you, isn’t it?” Master Cloris held out a hand that looked like it had saw more grease in a week than Daniel would in his whole life. He carefully shook it.

“So you are not looking for a new horn-violin? Well, lucky you, Melia, I don’t have any that would live up to your requirements at the moment.”

“Master Cloris knows me so well,” Melia said to Daniel, who was looking for a way to clean his hand. Melia had dealt with this before, he noticed. She opened her little purse and slipped him a handkerchief.

They looked around the shop for a bit, while Melia and Master Cloris communicated in a jargon that was completely lost on Daniel. They then said goodbye to the strange man, who seemed to forget about them the moment he turned to go back to his wicked machines.

Back in the fresh outside air, they both blinked their eyes until they could properly see again.

“I hope you liked it, Daniel.” Melia slipped her arm through his.

“If nothing else, it was very entertaining,” Daniel grinned. “I do believe I owe you a handkerchief.”

“Don’t worry, dear Daniel, I can wash that.” She was quite practical, Daniel noticed. A sour moment made him think of Xandree and her practicality, but Melia started walking and he tagged along.

They passed the shops from there on and then turned into a much quieter street.

“I have my classes in my house,” Melia said. “It is right up this street, and then we turn to the left. It is near where the playing fields are.”

“The playing fields?” Daniel wondered.

“Yes. It is where the women play Folling. I’ve never discovered what they like about that,” Melia said as she shook her head, making her curls dance. “Oh dear, there you have some. They are always so dirty.”

At the end of the street a group of people came around the corner, loudly talking and yelling at each other. Daniel grinned at the loud bunch that was so completely different from the calm and sophisticated life on this planet he had seen so far.

“Oh goodness,” Melia said, “it is them. They are always so loud. It is almost a disgrace, Daniel, I am sorry you have to witness this.”

The group of women came closer and Daniel was surprised to see how muddy they all looked. He began to wonder what Folling was about, when one of the women in the group stopped and stared at him. The others noticed her standing still and stopped also, the noise chatter slowly dying out.

“Rayko, come on, the carriages are waiting!” one of them yelled.

Rayko? Daniel got a slightly strange feeling. This had to be another one.

The muddy shape walked over to Daniel and Melia and stopped a few feet away from them. She stared at his face, at the arms and back at his face. “You,” she hissed.

“Miss Dandra ko Galem?” Daniel carefully asked.

“Yes, Mr. Zacharias. What are you doing here?” She planted her dirty hands on her dirty hips.

Melia’s arm slowly pulled away from Daniel’s and she stepped back, slowly.

“I am here, having a nice time, Miss Dandra ko Galem. And I am not in the mood to have that ruined by you. I’ve had enough problems that originated in your family, and I’m glad I am free of that now.”

Rayko glared at him, mud cracking on her cheeks. She turned to the group of women, held up her hands and yelled: “Toss!”

“Daniel…” Melia said, but it was too late.

A ball flew into Rayko’s hands and a moment later it landed full in Daniel’s stomach. It was more the surprise than the impact that shook him up. As he clenched the ball, it left magnificent mud streaks on his clothes.

“What the hell…” he wanted to know, as the young woman grabbed the ball from his hands.

“Hah. Serves you!” Then Rayko paced off to her friends, who cheered at her, and the group walked off, even louder than before.

“Daniel? Are you well?” Melia kept a distance from him, afraid that his mud would become her mud.

“Yes, thank you, I’m okay. I just wasn’t prepared for that.” He looked at the group of women.

“I think you should have told me, Daniel,” Melia said, stepping away from him. “I am a grown woman and I can take that.”

“Told you what, Melia?” Daniel didn’t understand.

“That she is your girlfriend.”

“She is what? No way. She’s a brat and a nuisance that kicked my shins at the soirée of her father when we danced- Melia?”

The music teacher quickly walked off. Daniel went after her.

“Leave me alone, Daniel. Please. Do not make me angry or cry. We had a nice afternoon, and we should leave it at that. Thank you, Mr. Zacharias, I bid your farewell.”

Daniel stood in the middle of the street, stunned, not knowing what to say or do. That was the best thing he could do at that moment, but it did not feel like it. He looked back at where he had last seen the noisy group. They were gone. When he turned his head again, Melia was gone too. “Women,” he muttered, “nothing but trouble.” He turned and walked back towards the streets with the shops.

-=-=-

Daniel had gone home, taken a shower and changed. With his soiled suit in a bag, he went out the door again and took it to a cleaner who promised him the suit would be good as new.

From there he walked around a bit and came by the Tub, the bar that had been redecorated. Curious what it had become, he went inside. Not much had changed. He ordered a beer at one of the concentric bars and looked around at the clientèle as that was the main entertainment at this early hour. The man behind the bar was too bored to have a chat, so Daniel decided he’d finish his beer and find another place, when suddenly a tiny white-haired woman stood there. She stared at him from a modest distance.

Daniel emptied the glass. The white-haired woman was still there, still watching him. “Excuse me,” Daniel said, “is there something I can do for you?”

Carefully, as if she had to be weary of her head, she nodded. Slowly she came closer. “You are the man who was on the Pricosine.”

“Yes.” Daniel was not sure what he had to do next, so he waited.

“Do you know what happened to them?”

“No. I am sorry. I don’t. Please believe me that I want to know also. May I know who you are?”

The tiny woman shook her head and stepped back. “No. No, that is not important. I just want to know how they are…” Quickly she walked off and disappeared to the street.

Daniel frowned. “Do you know who that was?” he asked the barkeeper.

“Who?” the man asked.

“Hmm. Never mind.” Daniel paid for his beer and left the Tub.

As he was cruising down the street to a place he knew to serve a good supper, his hydger rattled in his pocket. He flipped the box open and saw the black triangle. “This’d better be good…” After finding a quiet spot, he flipped the switch.

The familiar brushing sound was there again. “Have you found people to sail the boat?” There was no beating around the bush this time.

“Yes. I have a few people, that should be okay. Not experienced sailors, but they can put up a fight if need be.”

“You will need people like that. Listen. I will tell you where the boat is.”

Daniel listened carefully as the mysterious person detailed where in the harbour the boat was. Daniel understood that it had to be a very old and deserted area, but the directions were clear and concise. “Okay. I got that.”

“Inspect the boat,” the brushing voice said, “I will get in touch again in a while.” Then the black triangle disappeared.

“Looks like we got us a boat,” Daniel mumbled, sticking the hydger in his pocket. Then he pulled it out again and called Tomlin.

“You got word of a boat? That is good. We should have a look as soon as we can,” said Tomlin as he heard the news. They agreed to meet at the harbour entrance in two hours, that would give everyone time for a quick bite and get there.

Daniel waited at the harbour until Tomlin arrived. There was another man with him, who turned out to be Tomlin’s friend Gerolf.

“Our captain was not able to make it, but I think we can trust your judgement, Daniel.”

Daniel felt a bit overasked, but they could at least take a look, so he went ahead and followed the instructions the brushing voice had given him. They reached a small pier. It was hewn from natural rock, aeons ago.

“That’s it?” Gerolf looked at the vessel.

“That must be it. It’s the only boat around,” Daniel said. “And it’s… small. As promised.” He stepped onto the boat. It was in good shape, that was clear, but the thing could probably hold six people. And there would already be four sailing in it.

Tomlin and Gerolf also got on board. “I could use this for the family,” Tomlin said. “Once I learn how to sail, that is.” There was a slight movement of the boat as Daniel walked around it, and Tomlin grabbed hold of the single mast with both arms.

“Learn to sail, you said?” Daniel grinned. “That’ll be the day.”

“Tomlin,” Gerolf said. “Maybe strange Aldrick knows something.”

“Who?” Daniel had never heard that name before.

“That’s an idea…” Tomlin said, holding the mast with only one hand now. “He has always something up his sleeve. He could have something for us…”

“Who is strange Aldrick, Tomlin?”

“Maybe we should pay him a visit. I have some time this evening, Gerolf. You?”

“Hello? I am still here, right?” Daniel tapped Tomlin on the shoulder.

“I know, Daniel. Strange Aldrick is an inventor. So far he has not blown up his house, but rumour has it that this is his second one.” Tomlin and Gerolf laughed over what had to be some local joke. “We are going to look him up and see if he has something better than this bathtub.”

“I’m coming with you,” Daniel decided.

“Nope, you’re not. Aldrick is strange for a reason, and strangers is one of them. We have to look him up alone. He knows us.”

Daniel was not a happy camper with this answer, but he had to trust his friend. He guided the two off the harbour area and then saw them roll away in a carriage. All he had was the promise that Tomlin would get in touch as soon as he knew something.

33. Shipyard

The next day started in a highly unusual way. Daniel had never had problems with any of his ‘neighbours’ in the hall where his apartment was, but this day was intent on making that change, it seemed. A lot of screaming and what sounded like fighting woke him up. It was still dark.

For a moment Daniel hoped that the noise had been in a dream, but when something seemed to crash into the front door of his place, that bubble burst. He dragged himself to his feet and went to the door. After listening to the noise that did not relent, and making sure his door was out of the line of combat, he peeked outside. Two men were fighting in the hall, rolling left and right, attempting to punch each others’ lights out. From several other apartments, sleepy faces were staring at the scene.

“I hate this,” Daniel muttered. He stepped into the hall and grabbed the man who was on top at that moment in the collar and dragged him away from the other one. “What the hell are you doing here, you idiots?” he barked at the two men. The one on the floor was someone who lived in the building, on this floor. His name was Crissom or something like that.

Instead of supplying him with an answer, the man on the floor scrambled to his feet and launched a blow at the surprised man hanging from Daniel’s hand. Daniel grabbed the attacker by the shirt and pressed him against the wall.

“Folks, some assistance would be good,” he suggested to the people who were looking and not acting. That helped: one of the men in the hall came out and took one of Daniel’s captives in some kind of wrench grip. Daniel knew this man only by his nickname, the Bull. He lived up to it.

“Now what’s this fight about?” Daniel asked.

“Yeah, we all want to know, bunch of imbeciles.” Several voices now dared to express their feelings.

The man who was pressed against the wall pointed at the man in the wrench grip. “He started it. He lost the game and now he doesn’t want to come true!”

“Okay… what’s the game and what’s the problem?” The Bull, who had come to help Daniel shook his victim slightly.

The two men held under control explained that the loser had promised, when losing the game of cards they had been playing, to work at the other man’s workplace for a day. It was quite a strange deal they had cut, but things were the way they were. The loser claimed that he had not known up front that the ante would be working a day at the shipyard, working on building new boats and ships. “I am not cut out for that kind of work!” he raised to his defence.

“No, you’re cut out to take other people’s wages,” the winner growled, “and running off as soon as there’s trouble!” He tried to struggle himself free, but Daniel’s grip on him was beyond his might.

“I’ll give you all your money back,” the loser attempted, “just let me go…” The man’s words ended in a whimper.

The man in Daniel’s grip growled again. “The money is mine to start with, that won’t buy you off, you scum. You’ll hold your end of the deal, or I’ll-” He attempted another go at the man, in vain.

“Hey, calm down,” Daniel said, holding the man back again. “I agree that the loser has to pay up for whatever it was the deal was.” He suddenly had a crazy idea. “Bull, can you keep these guys stay put here for a moment? I’m going with them to see to things.”

“You’re crazy, man, but sure, hand ’m over.”

“I’m awake now anyway,” Daniel shrugged.

The Bull kept the two men where he wanted them, while Daniel got dressed.

“Right, gentlemen. Let’s go,” he said as he reappeared. He wore simple grey workman’s clothing, nobody would know him except perhaps for his height.

Crissom grunted. The loser refused to say a word. They walked towards the shipyard, which was conveniently located next to the harbour. Crissom’s mood seemed to improve as they came closer. “It is easy to get you inside. You’re just hired hands for the day,” he said, “lemme do the talks.”

It was indeed very simple to get onto the shipyard. Nobody asked papers or any form of identification, they were through the gate in a matter of seconds. Daniel and Crissom both held on to the still unwilling card game loser, who by now had shared his name was Purliss. The man actually looked around, curious what all was going on.

“Over here,” Crissom said, pointing at a small shack in a wooden fence that allowed access to ‘Garmo ko Stirrish Ship Building’.

Daniel grinned. “Is there a way for me to go in and peek around without doing anything else?”

“Oh, sure,” said Crissom, “inspectors do that all the time.”

Daniel was curious what was going about, so he let Crissom arrange access to the yard for him as well, as he kept Purliss close. “You are going to give it your best, Purliss,” he said. “I’ll be around and keep an eye on you. Even if you don’t see me.”

Purliss’ enthusiasm was barely able to look out of the gutter, but he followed Crissom without the need for further physical encouragement.

Daniel slipped away between enormous stacks of Polychlon that would be turned into ships. He wandered around over the enormous area, where many men were hauling the large pieces around on carts drawn by small horses. Somewhere on a stack of smaller beams, he found what looked like a crude clipboard with some papers still attached to it. He picked it up and walked around as if he was checking things. Nobody bothered him. In fact, whenever he came near people, they seemed to evade him. Inspectors were treated and loved the same way everywhere, he grinned to himself.

Clipboard in hand, he made his way over the yard to where the ship was being built. It was a smaller one, he saw, with only three masts. It had a very sleek design, the ship was obviously made for speed. Someone was in for some fast trading. He walked off to see the ship more directly from the front side, when he noticed another ship being built ‘next door’. He stopped and stared at the high and proud stern that was towering over the fence. A shudder ran down his spine. The ship looked like the twin of the Pricosine.

Daniel looked around. There was no one near him. Hopefully nobody was watching him from some spot. He put the clipboard on a discarded, broken piece of Polychlon and pulled himself up on the fence. The other side was littered with material, with only narrow paths between the piles. If all that had to go into the ship, Daniel thought, it was a miracle that these things actually floated. He jumped back down, picked up the clipboard and made his way over the fence.

The makebelief inspector sauntered over to the immense ship that was half in the water and half supported on blocks of incredible size. This ship and everything that was connected to it surpassed anything he had ever considered big. There were three gangways leading up to it, each to another level. Two went up to hatches further below, and the main gangway led up to the deck. Looking busy, Daniel walked up one of the lower gangways, that got him inside one of the large cargo bays.

The bays were still being built. As Daniel got into the hull, even the floor wasn’t entirely finished, so he had to pay attention where he was going. The giant space that was around him left a deep impression with him. He knew that the Pricosine was large, he had patrolled over it many a time, but to see its size this way was stupefying.

After faking some checking, he walked along the bay to the opening where an access door would be. The stairs up were already there, so he boldly walked up and kept going until he reached the upper deck.

The large station where the bridge was going to be was only outlined. A pain jabbed deep inside him. The bridge. Immediately Ulaman, Xandree, Lidrin and all the others were in his head. A flow of powerless rage came and went. Then he froze. A voice was coming from somewhere and it belonged to someone he very much did not want to engage. It was the voice of Clelem Dandra ko Galem.

Daniel scanned the deck and saw a large stack of Polychlon parts, neatly placed. He ran for it and climbed onto it. It was so high that nobody would be able to see him from the deck. He lay on his back for a while, long enough to make his breath calm down and verify there were no people working on the masts who could give him away, even by accident. It then dawned on him that this check was somewhat too late. Luckily there were no people working up high yet.

“I do wonder, my dear husband, why you are insisting on bringing us here at this unholy hour.”

Daniel recognised the voice of Clelem’s wife Ugidra. Us? He crawled forward and glanced over the edge for a second. Clelem was coming on deck, as was his wife.

“Do not start that litany again, Ugidra,” Clelem commented. “This will be the pride of my fleet and I want you to see it.”

“Father, you could have asked an artist to make a sketch,” Warlem’s voice sounded, mixed with sighs and heavy breathing. “It’s not even finished yet!” The young man sounded very disappointed.

Daniel grinned at all that, but also wondered about the total lack of thought that seemed to be with the lost crew and the lost ship. Another thought came to him, and as if Warlem was picking up on that, he heard him say: “And why was Rayko allowed to stay in and skip this ordeal…”

“Stop your whining, Warlem,” Clelem said in a harsh voice. “You are taking over some day and I want you to toughen up for that. All your poetry and art and what not is making me nauseous, and ashamed that you are in anyway in this family!” The man did not seem to care who could hear him. “This is the Pricosine 2, and it will be better than… just a lot better.”

The three people passed the stack that Daniel was hiding on. “It’s just another big boat, father, and it’s cold and windy here.”

“It’s a ship. When will you ever learn? Even your sister knows the difference.” Clelem started to sound ticked off at his son. “I sometimes seriously wonder if I am insane for thinking you will take over one day, Warlem.”

“My sister… my sister… it’s not as if you like her any better, father. The way you yelled at her yesterday when she-”

“She has no business showing up so muddy and bedraggled every time she has been away for that stupid game! And now I want you to be silent and pay attention.” The man’s voice had gone subzero.

Daniel frowned. Clelem had clearly been performing a great act when they had met. This was clearly the real man speaking now. Slowly the family was moving away to another part of the ship. Daniel raised himself up a bit and waited until they were far away, so he could get off the stack of material. Quickly he found his way back to the cargo bay, and from there he left the ship the way he had gotten on it.

Getting off this shipyard was close to impossible, Daniel noticed. There were two men at the gate who checked every last fly that tried to come in. As he made his way back to the fence where he had climbed over, he remembered the clipboard. It was still on the stack of material on the new Pricosine. For several long moments he stood still, debating with himself if he should go back for it. The dark clouds that had been overhead for a while convinced him to leave it there. The clouds then donated a sudden wash of rain that made everyone run for cover. Daniel took that opportunity to quickly go over the fence and run along with people. Many of them were on their way to one of the large sheds that were meant to keep special material safe. Daniel ran towards the other gate that was wide open and unguarded.

34. Strange Aldrick

Daniel arrived at his apartment, wet and cold. And also excited, exhilarated. He had been somewhere new again, snooped around in places he should not be. He had heard things he should not have heard. And he had not been caught. The whole thing came down to a giant trip.

It was all completely against everything his military training had taught him; they had spies for things like that. And he couldn’t care less. He had done this. He had learnt things about Clelem Dandra ko Galem that apparently not many people knew.

He treated himself to a hot shower and dry clothes. After locating some rations he kept for special occasions, and the lasting rain was one of those, he sat at the table and stared out the window. The painful open spot of the Pricosine stung him.

Daniel had tried to see the shipyard from his room, but that was just out of visual range. Maybe that was just as well.

He flipped open the hydger, wondering if that needed drying out with all the rain, but miraculously that did not show any problems.

No one had tried to call him. The clouds overhead did not show any sign of wanting to leave soon. This was going to be a dreary day, Daniel was rather certain of that.

As his thoughts rolled on, he suddenly found himself composing what could be a letter to someone, in his head. He decided that he might as well make it a real one. Yes, he would write a letter to his sister.

He wrote to her, about how he had been transferred to NGC6637-VIII (’a really very far-away planet’) and how he had been stationed here to do security on ships, because of pirates. He did not hide from her the fact that they had been outnumbered, and that his life had almost been forfeit.

’I do at times think of you, Cynthia,’ he wrote. ‘I hope you’re doing well and I would really like to hear from you.’

Daniel read his letter over a few times. Then he sent it off, through the star base relay address. The white blip on the screen told him it had been delivered, and that was all he could do.

As he was staring through the window again, the hydger rattled. He picked it up. A black triangle was there, and he didn’t even frown anymore.

“Hello, mysterious person.”

“Mr. Zacharias,” the distorted voice said, through the by now familiar brushing sound. “Have you seen the boat?”

“Yes. I did.” Daniel explained about the problem of the size. The stranger on the other end was silent, apparently he had not counted on that. Then Daniel told him about the possible alternative that they were working on.

“You are venturing into options yourself?” No brushing or distortion could take away the surprise in the voice.

“Yes. I want the people from the Pricosine saved. A few people I know want to help.”

“When do you know what their option is for saving the crew?”

“They told me they would get back to me in a few days. So that could even be tomorrow,” Daniel said.

Another silence. “I see. Can you send word to me as soon as you know if the option is viable?”

“I can, but I’ll need the identification of your hydger for that.” Daniel wondered if the mysterious person would do that.

“Very well. I will hear from you. As soon as possible.” Beneath the black triangle a set of numbers appeared as the connection was terminated.

Daniel stared at the numbers and could not believe it. He had a way to connect to this person now, whoever it was. Quickly he stored the call sign in the hydger, again wondering how many of those this strange box could hold.

Unfortunately, after that the day held no more excitement for Daniel.

He was appreciative of his umbrella, as the rain was still falling as he went out for dinner.

-=-=-

“Krrrrrkkk… Krrrrkkk…” went the hydger. The display told him that Tomlin tried to talk to him.

“Hey, Tomlin, what’s up?”

“Good morning, Daniel. Can you come over to me?” Tomlin sounded all business. “I mean now?”

“Yes. What’s the rush?” Daniel asked as he veered up from the bed.

“Strange Aldrick has agreed to see you.”

“Ah. That is wonderful. I think. I should be with you in something like… half an hour?” Daniel estimated.

“That would be good. Gerolf is on his way also, he’ll be here before you. We’ll wait for you.” Tomlin ended the call without a further word; things had to be very exciting for him, to forget that. Tomlin had become such a gentleman, Daniel grinned.

As he stood in front of the mirror, fixing his tie, he grinned again. ‘Not just Tomlin, Daniel, not just Tomlin…’

A carriage took him to Tomlin’s house. The roads were still wet; it had rained until early morning, but now the clouds had broken up and some sunshine was making its way down, to take care of the excess moisture.

When he arrived, Tomlin and Gerolf were already waiting outside.

“Good morning,” Tomlin said as the two got in. He did the address trick with the hydger and the carriage pulled away. As they were on the road, Tomlin explained that they had visited Strange Aldrick and that the man had said he had something incredible to show them.

Daniel asked him what it was, and Tomlin just grinned. “You’re going to love it, Daniel. Really. But Aldrick asked us not to tell anyone. It is all experimental and… such.”

“Experimental? And… such?” Something in the way Tomlin had spoken gave Daniel a feeling that he’d rather not have. And he was not certain what worried him more, the experimental part or the bit that was not mentioned.

“It’s somewhat out of the ordinary,” Gerolf simply said.

“Oh. Somewhat. And experimental. And we are going to the person who devised this.” Daniel sat back. “Sounds like a very good idea.”

“I agree,” Gerolf said. Daniel had no idea if the man was joking or if he had no grasp of sarcasm whatsoever.

The journey took them out of Skarak and into what could be called the backlands. There were many trees in shapes and colours Daniel had never seen. The road was less used and also less maintained: the carriage was shaking quite a bit, and its lack of good suspension became painfully apparent.

“How on Earth does this thing know where to go?” Daniel asked as he tried to find something to hold on to.

“We’re not on Earth, Daniel,” Tomlin laughed, “and I wouldn’t know even if we were there!”

Gerolf just held on, stoically silent.

At the moment Daniel was afraid that the carriage would fall apart, it stopped.

“We’ve arrived,” Tomlin said the liberating word. Their transport had not broken down. Or it had, at the right time.

They left the carriage. Daniel stepped into a puddle. Gerolf grinned.

“Come on, no fussing about dirty shoes, Daniel,” Tomlin said as he started up a narrow path through hip-high grass. Daniel went after him and Gerolf closed their ranks..

The carriage did not move.

After about fifteen minutes of plowing through the grass, over a path that was not promoting progress, they reached a gate. Daniel wondered why there was a gate without a fence.

“It’s Aldrick’s place. Does this give you a clue why he’s called strange?” Tomlin opened the gate and let them in. Upon Daniel’s frown he said: “Aldrick’s strange. But that does not mean he’s crazy, Daniel, remember that. If he puts up a gate, use it. Really.”

The three men walked on. The track now was somewhat more friendly on their legs, and they reached a small house. Well, it was more a large cabin.

“Aldrick!” Tomlin yelled. “We’re here!” He turned to Daniel. “You never know where he is, so it is smart to announce yourself as soon as possible.”

“I knew you were here,” a voice said. The body that came with it appeared from inside the cabin. “No need to shout.” The man was dressed in white slacks held up by a wide black belt, and a red shirt. He wore black boots and a blue wool hat, despite the nice weather. His skin looked an unhealthy shade of pale.

The man walked up to them and stared at Daniel. “You are the sailor, right?”

“You could call it that,” Daniel replied.

“Good. Come with me. I have the perfect thing for you.” Without wasting words or time, Aldrick turned and marched off, the three others in his wake.

Strange Aldrick suddenly stopped. “There she is.”

Daniel and his fellows stopped. And stared. “That is…”

“An airship,” Aldrick cheerfully said. “It is what you need. Believe me.”

“Uhm, I am sorry and not meaning to offend or so,” said Daniel, “but that is a boat.”

Aldrick frowned. “I cannot call it an air boat. That sounds all wrong.”

They stared at a boat, all blue, that stood in a field. It had what looked like two wings protruding from its hull, pointing downwards and resting on the ground, to keep the boat level. There were two short masts on the boat, the sails nicely wrapped up. On the ground, on four sides, they saw strange blobs, like sacks, that were connected to the boat with a complex set of lines.

“How do you like it?” Aldrick asked.

“It’s… impressive,” Daniel gave it his best.

“Oh… wait until you see it all. Come!” Aldrick grabbed Daniel’s arm and pulled him to the boat. “Here, look, see those? Those are the balloons, the floaters that will lift up the boat. Up, to the sky…” Aldrick raised his hands, looking up to the sky. “The sky…”

“Yes. I see them.”

Tomlin and Gelrof kept a safe distance and grinned at each other.

“Come, come!” Aldrick became excited now. “Here, look.” He held up a tube that was connected to one of the balloons. “This goes onto the boat!”

Daniel spotted it. “Yes.” He was, so far, less enthusiastic than the strange man next to him. Amused, yes. But not excited yet.

Aldrick again pulled Daniel along, now to the neat blue stairs that hung from the boat. As Daniel climbed on board after the man, he noticed it was larger than it had looked. It was somewhat like a small ship, with the right attitude. It could hold twenty people with ease, thirty even in case of an emergency.

They went aft on the small ship, where a small cabin was built. Behind the low cabin was a steering wheel.

Aldrick opened the doors of the cabin and pointed at a steam-compressor, in which the four tubes of the floaters came together. “Here, see, look, fire this up, and the hot air goes to the floaters, and they fill up. With hot air, you know. And then they rise, and lift up the ship. The AIR SHIP.” Aldrick exaggerated the words, wanting to make his point.

Daniel shook his head and sat down on the bench behind the steering wheel. “And you expect that this whole contraption, including the heavy steam machine, will float with these four balloons?”

“Expect? I know it will.” Aldrick folded his arms over his chest. “I have flown with this airship, sir. It flies. It sails through the air. And it lands on water just as easily. But that is not a smart thing to do, because when the balloons get wet, they won’t fill up anymore.” This sounded like experience.

Daniel looked up at the man. “Do you think we could give this a try?”

Aldrick sat down next to Daniel. “Yes. And we alone will fly it, as these two… gentlemen…” he almost spat out the word “…are too squeamish for this.”

“Daniel, are you sure about this?” Tomlin asked, still from a safe distance.

“I am sure I want to try this, Tomlin,” Daniel replied. Then he followed Aldrick around the airship as the man secured the lines that held the hot air tubes in place and fired up the steam machine. It did not take long for the engine to build up steam and the floaters were filling up.

“Now look, Mr. Zacharias,” Aldrick said. “This point is important. As soon as the balloons are round, you hold this down.” He momentarily pressed down a lever, which made something hissed. “This fills something special into the balloons,” Aldrick said with a smile that would look good in a secretive brotherhood. “This is what gives them the lift.”

Daniel saw the balloons fill up quickly with the lever pushed. As soon as they hovered well over the boat, Aldrick let the lever go and throttled the steam engine a bit. Daniel still had his doubts that all this mass would be leaving the ground, when they were suddenly lifting off.

Daniel let out a shout of surprise and happiness, just for the sheer joy of it. Tomlin and Gerolf stood with opens mouths, watching the affair take off. Aldrick attempted to outshine the sun in delight of his success. “Now, Mr. Zacharias, would be a good moment to set a sail.”

“A sail?”

“Yes, sir. That is how you steer a small sailing ship, don’t you?”

“And what about that?” Daniel pointed at the steering wheel.

“That only works in the water, Mr. Zacharias,” Aldrick said. He added an understanding smile.

Daniel grinned. This had been one stupid remark. He made his way to the mast closest to the cabin, threw his coat on the row of benches and worked the ropes until the lower sail was in the wind. He found that the sail was very easy to manoeuvre. With some clever moves he turned it exactly right. The airship moved forward, pushed on by the wind.

Aldrick was smiling like a dim-wit, but Daniel knew the man was a genius. They were at least thirty feet over the ground already, Tomlin and Gelrof small puppets in the green.

35. Getting ready

The airship was more stable than Daniel had expected. They had flown it for almost half an hour, and there was nothing he could point at to be wrong, or even slightly failing. Even the turning and sailing up against the wind had gone well, although it had cost a lot of time and effort.

Landing the ship had been simply a matter of releasing the air from the balloons, for which Aldrick had made a lever also. “If the lever fails, then people can pull the red line that holds the balloon, Mr. Zacharias. That will release the air from the balloon directly. Some synchronisation is important then, of course. It is not done to lose passengers.”

One uncertainty was of course: how would the airship behave with twenty or more people on board? Would the balloons hold that?

Aldrick was convinced they would. “You just add some more of the special gas, Mr. Zacharias. It will lift. I am convinced of that.”

Tomlin and Gelrof praised Daniel and Aldrick for their flight. “It looked amazing. Astounding.” Coming from a man who had flown space craft, jet packs and star cruisers, that meant a lot to Daniel.

“We have to make a plan fast, Tomlin. The longer we wait, the less chance we have to find someone alive,” Daniel said.

“Let’s do that on the way back,” Tomlin suggested.

Aldrick told them that the airship would be ready for them any day after this one. “You are most welcome to use it, Mr. Zacharias. You are a good pilot and sailor. I have confidence in you.”

“You’re not coming with us?”

“No, sir. I am an inventor, not a fighter…”

The three men took their leave, went back to the still waiting carriage and made plans on the way back to Tomlin’s house.

The next day Daniel went over to Tomlin’s house again, to meet the skipper Tomlin had found willing to help with the rescue mission. They bravely called it that. The skipper had brought two more people with him. Not the kind of folks Daniel normally would care to know, but they looked as if they were very able to do some serious damage to pirates, so he welcomed the two to the crew.

The skipper had a set of old maps with him, clearly very often used, and pointed out a number of possible places he thought they should visit first. “If y’ask me, son, it’s one of them here spots the pirate’s hiding.”

Daniel had to take the word of the man for it, he had no clue where to start. The skipper advised him to get supplies for at least a week. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be gone.”

That was true. And it was also something that worried Daniel. He decided that supplies for two weeks might be a better idea. Aldrick had been confident that the airship would be able to carry all that and more. The next worries appeared quickly after that. How was he going to get all the supplies to the backlands where Aldrick lived, and how was he going to pay for them? He still had no idea what he was worth, financially, and Tomlin was not able to give him an idea how to find out.

On the way home, Daniel tried to contact the number of the cloaked person. After a few attempts he gave up, and somehow he wasn’t even very surprised that there was no reply. The surprise happened when he had gotten home and was ready to hit the shower: the hydger made its ghastly sound and the black triangle was there.

“Daniel here.”

“Mr. Zacharias,” the voice spoke, “I saw you have tried to reach me.”

“Yes, several times. I already had the idea that the number was wrong,” Daniel said.

“It is correct. I am not always… accessible. Tell me what you have to say.”

Daniel told that they had a way to get around and look for the Pricosine crew, and his worries about the supplies. “The captain we have found is right, we don’t know how long we will be gone, so we need quite some food and water.”

“I understand. Valid problems to deal with, Mr. Zacharias.” The voice was silent for a moment, only the brushing noise remained in the background. ” We may have a solution though. Do you have a list of what you need?”

“Yes, I do, in fact.” Daniel grabbed it from the table. He read it out, slowly, so the person on the receiving end could write things down. He could have sent it through the hydger as a message, he knew, but on the other side there was nothing like a printing device, so it had to be written down anyway.

At the end of the dictating session, the stranger said: “I will see what I can arrange, Mr. Zacharias. And when I have done so, I will contact you again.” Immediately after that the connection went off.

“And a good day to you too,” Daniel frowned as he closed the hydger. These communications never felt comfortable. “What the hell have I gotten myself into …”

As Daniel did his best not to look out the window, there was a knock on the door. He frowned. Frowning was becoming a habit on this planet. He walked over to the door.

In the hall waited a very small woman, with white hair and pale eyes. It was the woman who had addressed him as he was having a beer at the Tub. “Do you remember me?” she asked, her voice gentle and careful.

“Yes. I do. We met in the pub called the Tub,” Daniel said. It was impossible not to remember such an extraordinary looking person. “Very shortly too.”

“Yes.” She nodded, also carefully. “I really would like to talk to you. And apologise.”

“Please, would you come in. Talking with you out there is so awkward.” Daniel let her in and offered her a seat, which she hesitantly accepted.

“My name is Ombra Hozteng,” she said, nervously looking around. “I don’t think, Mr. Zacharias, that you have heard it before?”

It struck him that she knew his name. “Indeed, Mrs. Hozteng, I haven’t.”

Ombra Hozteng smiled. “Thank you.”

“For what, please?” Daniel was not aware of doing something special.

“For calling me ‘Mrs.’. Not many people do.” The white-haired woman shifted on the chair a bit, and then started to explain. “I am the… uhm… partner of Draiky. Draiky Trelodah. The cook on the Pricosine.”

Many pieces of the puzzle suddenly crawled together by their own strength. “Oh. Right. I understand a lot more now,” Daniel nodded. He recalled how tenderly and lovingly Draiky had spoken about her love, and smiled. “Draiky did not mention your name, but she spoke of you a few times.”

“I know,” Ombra said, a slight smile showing. “She told me about you, and how you talked to her. She trusts you, Mr. Zacharias. And when she trusts you, I trust you too.”

Then the hydger started its noise. Daniel looked at it and decided to ignore it. This talk was more important, he sensed.

“Needn’t you answer that, sir?” Ombra asked, noticing his action.

“No. They will call back when it is important. You and I are talking now.”

“Oh…” She coloured, her pale cheeks turning pink. Clearly she was not used to that. “Do you have any information, sir, anything, on where she might be?” In a sudden bold streak she blurted out her question.

Daniel held back the sigh that wanted to part with him. “Unfortunately, I don’t, Mrs. Hozteng.” He registered that the hydger shut up.

“Please, call me Ombra, sir.”

“I will. Ombra. I am Daniel. And I really wish I could tell you something more positive, Ombra. The last time I saw Draiky she was still alive.” He knew that this was not very comforting, but it was the only thing he could say.

Ombra stared at the floor. She almost jumped as the hydger rattled again. “You should answer that, sir… Please.”

Her words made Daniel pick up the hydger. As he saw the incoming identification, his heart skipped a beat. It was Rhonda, calling from star base. “Rhonda! Daniel here,” he said after accepting the incoming call. He was more than just pleasantly surprised. “I have a visitor here, can you-”

The click of the door made him look up. “Crap,” he muttered.

“You have a visitor?” the image of Rhonda’s face, distorted and jumpy because of the enormous distance and difference in technology, still showed her surprise.

“Looks like she just left,” Daniel commented.

“She? Don’t tell me you have a girlfriend over there, Daniel Zacharias!” Not even the tin-can speaker on the hydger covered her amusement.

“No, I don’t. It was the girlfriend of the cook.” Daniel closed his eyes. “Do you want me to explain?”

There was an unnerving crackling in the connection for a moment.

“Maybe that’s not necessary. We heard of what happened, Daniel. How you survived the pirate attack. Are you okay?” The concern was real.

“I’m okay, Rhonda. Really. Just worried sick about the rest of the crew.”

“Yeah. That’s you. Listen, I have limited time on this thing. I just want to tell you to be careful, Daniel. I had a great time with you there, with all the dressing up. I never had a friend like you before and-”

The connection dropped away. Daniel slapped the hydger. “Rhonda? Rhonda, do you hear me?”

The connection was gone and staid away. Limited time, she had said. No joke there. Daniel put some effort into trying a connection from him to Rhonda, but that stranded quickly. Somehow he could only send out messages to the star base, not set up visual communication.

He let out the sigh that had been put on hold during Ombra’s visit. He felt sad that the tiny woman had left so quickly, and wondered how she had gotten his address. He felt sad also that the talk with Rhonda had been cut so short. But on the upside, she had gone through the trouble of contacting him, and that made him feel good inside.

-=-=-

The next morning, as Daniel was paining his brain over all kinds of useless things, the hydger yanked him back to serious things.

“Mr. Zacharias, please listen,” the voice behind the black triangle said, “your supplies will be waiting for you in a carriage this afternoon. You will find the carriage in… the backyard of a shop called Henlicks Cranulum. It is in Skarak, where you live.”

Daniel frowned. Why did that need to get emphasised?

“Will you be able to find that shop?” the voice asked.

“I am sure. Do I need to know something special? I am curious how you arranged that, too,” Daniel tried.

“Henlicks Cranulum, backyard, this afternoon. Good luck.” And those were the last words before the connection went dead.

Daniel called Tomlin and told him about the mysterious call and the carriage that would be waiting for him later that day. Surprised that his friend was available so often lately, he asked Tomlin about that.

“I have my own company here, Daniel,” Tomlin enlightened him. “I can work when I want. And this thing we are doing now is much more interesting and challenging than yet another steam cylinder.”

“Right. I hope you don’t get into trouble with all this, Tomlin. We will be gone for a while.”

“Let that be my problem, Daniel, if at all there is a problem. Let me know when you go get the carriage and when you come here with it. I’ll get the others in a carriage then, and then we can head over to Strange Aldrick’s place.”

“Okay, Tomlin. And let me say that I am really glad with your help.”

“Don’t mention it. You coming here was the best thing in a long time. Getting back into action. Like the old days.”

“Like the old days, Tomlin,” Daniel grinned, and ended the call.

He bided his time by locating the shop that was Henlicks Cranulum. It was nothing special, he discovered. It was a shop where one could buy food. The strange name would never have made him connect that to their wares, but there were more things he wondered about on this planet. As he went around the back, which was no problem at all, he came to a backyard that was open and deserted. He noticed plenty of tracks in the earth in the yard obviously more people came here with carriages to pick up goods.

“Hello, Seigner,” a boy called out to him. Judging from his clothes he worked at Henlicks Cranulum, even if he was young. “Are you looking for something?”

“Not really,” Daniel said. “Not yet, anyway. I am supposed to collect a carriage here later today.”

The boy frowned, taking off his hat and scratching his head. “A carriage? We don’t sell carriages, Seigner.” He asked Daniel’s name. “Let me go ask, Seigner.”

Before Daniel could say a word, the boy darted off, through a door, into the dark secrets of Henlicks’. He appeared after a few minutes. “It’s all arranged, Seigner! The carriage will be loaded and waiting for you here, indeed!” He smiled as if he had arranged it himself.

“That is magnificent, young man,” Daniel grinned and waved at him. With that knowledge secured, Daniel went off for a late breakfast and then went home. He had a specific suitcase there that he would need at the moment they would engage the pirates.

As he had the suitcase on the table, ready for inspection, the hydger made its noise again.

“Well, well, aren’t we busy today,” he said to is as he opened the cover. There was a transmission. From the star base relay.

He read the header of the incoming message. It was from his sister, Cynthia. This was worth sitting down for. As he was comfortable, he started reading:

’Dear Daniel,

I am glad you found time to write to me. You do that far too little as it is, but then, I am guilty of that also. When I read your message, I was not sure if you had been in a bar and decided to cure your alcoholic state of mind by this wild story, but the words did not seem incoherent. Oh, I believe you are on this terribly far away planet. It sounds exactly like something you would do. (Did you volunteer for it?) But the story about pirates… Daniel, I am still not sure if I have to laugh about it, or worry for your safety. Whatever the situation is that you are in, please promise me that you will be careful.

I have not relayed your message to Malcolm. I suspect you will send him another message. If anything at all. It is truly too bad that you and he don’t get along, but it is something between you two.

Daniel, be careful, will you?

Your loving sister,

Cynthia’

“Yes, Cynthia, I’ll be careful. As much as I can be,” Daniel said to the message in the small screen. He felt good about that message. At least there was one woman in the universe that cared about him. He grinned.

He got to his feet and finished checking the contents of the suitcase. Good thing it was made of a hard plastic. Hopefully that, and the fact they were high over the water, would keep these toys working.

36. Airship

Daniel changed into what he still owned as a soldier’s uniform. It wasn’t exactly a proper uniform, but it would be a lot better than the local suits. He slipped the hydger in a pocket and put on a long overcoat. Then, with the suitcase in hand, he left his apartment and headed out to Henlicks Cranulum.

Packed with his strange luggage he attracted more attention than usual. He had already counted on that and ignored the curious looks. Daniel walked into the yard of the shop, where he saw two carriages, but not the boy. “Hello?” he called out.

A wrinkly man with a pipe in his mouth appeared. “Seigner?”

“My name is Zacharias. I believe there should be a carriage waiting for me.”

“Oh. Right. Gimme a moment, Seigner…” the man shuffled off.

A moment later the boy came outside. “Seigner Zacharias!” He smiled and pointed at the two carriages. “There they are.”

“They? I was supposed to have one carriage…” Daniel stared at the two deals on wheels.

“There was too much ordered, Seigner. We had to put it in two.”

“Oh. Ordered… by whom?”

“By you, Seigner. Mr. Daniel Zacharias?” The boy pulled a paper from his pocket and checked it. “Yes, sir, it is here.”

Daniel looked at the paper. On it was a long list with items, all in a very neat small handwriting, and at the bottom were indeed his name, and the number of his hydger. Whoever this mystery guest was, he was extremely well connected.

“If you could please sign here, Seigner, for receiving the goods…” The boy held up a pen and the pocket-version of an ink well.

Daniel signed the paper on a hand-made dotted line. “Can you tell me how I can move two carriages at the same time?” He had never done that. He wasn’t even sure if it could be done.

“Certainly, Seigner!” The boy first carefully blew the ink dry and tucked away the paper and the ink well. Then he showed Daniel how he could use his hydger to instruct one carriage to follow the other one. “I would advise you, Seigner, to ride in this here carriage. It is not so full,” the boy threw in a free tip.

Daniel stored his suitcase in the least loaded carriage, did the programming and linking trick and then sat down next to his suitcase. “Here goes,” he mumbled, using the hydger to make the carriages rattle off to Tomlin’s house. He checked through the window to make sure the other one was following. It did. Then he called Tomlin and informed his friend that he was on his way. “And it might be good to have an extra carriage for you guys. I’m bringing a lot of stuff.”

-=-=-

“Holy shit, Daniel,” Tomlin said as they inspected the crammed up carriages. “Are you planning to fly that boat around the planet?”

“No. Just to the pirate’s nest and back. But that could be on the other side,” Daniel remarked.

“Yeah. But we’re going to get him,” said one of the two rough men, the friends of the skipper. “And we’re going to wring his neck.” His large hands would certainly have no problem with that. Provided there was a neck to wring.

They loaded up the things the other men had with them. It struck Daniel that Nadinka, Tomlin’s wife, did not come outside. Perhaps this was something of the planet. Perhaps they had said goodbye already. This was not the time to ask and wonder about that. Not long after that, the three carriages went on their way. Daniel was riding alone in his carriage, as there was no space for Tomlin to squeeze in. They occasionally talked over their hydgers, until Aldrick’s place came in view. There they faced a logistical problem.

“It will take us hours to get all that stuff hauled and stowed on the airship, Daniel.”

Tomlin was right. Almost two carriages full of stuff, the gear the others had with them, and that over the path to the house and beyond. Then Daniel grinned. “I have an idea. Just you start unloading the stuff. I’ll come back soon. I think.” He quickly walked up the rabbit’s trail to Aldrick’s house. “Aldrick!”

Fifteen minutes later, Tomlin stared up as he heard someone yell his name. “I’ll be fucking damned…”

The airship slowly came flying towards the carriages. On board were Daniel and Aldrick, who worked together to land the airship as close to the road as possible. There was not much wind, so they had room to play, and it worked well.

The two wrestlers stared at the ship in disbelief. The captain was right there with them.

“Aldrick? What are you doing here?” Tomlin asked, as he carried the first box to the ship.

“I am coming with you,” the man said. He was dressed in a bizarre black outfit and carried a sword on his belt. “I have decided that I have to come along. I know the airship. Mr. Zacharias here knows how to work the sails, but he cannot do it all alone, and you…” The words did not need to be spoken, Aldrick’s facial expression said it all.

Tomlin did not argue.

They worked in a chain, handing the supplies over to the airship. It had hatches and storage compartments in the weirdest spots, and they almost all got filled up. The skipper kept a log what was stored where. Tomlin then sent the carriages off, back to where they belonged.

The group boarded the airship. Aldrick pointed out a bucket with straps and a large roll of sail that was stashed under a row of seats. “You can make yourself useful with that in case it starts to rain,” the inventor said. “Attach the straps to these lines, on the red marks, and then tie the sail to them. It should keep the rain from us.”

Most people noticed the ‘should’.

Abnezer and Phorlis, the two wrestler types, preferred to sit on the ship’s floor. They had not yet much confidence in this contraption, and avoiding seeing the actual flying seemed to make it better for them.

The skipper unfolded his maps on the roof of the cabin, while Tomlin and Aldrick worked on the steam engine. Daniel was in the first mast, trying the wind and rolling down a few sails.

“Here we go!” Aldrick sounded happy as a child as he pressed on the lever that added the gas for extra lift to the balloons.

The hiss sounded evil. The balloons tightened up. Then, calmly, as if lifted by a giant’s careful hand, the ship went up into the air. On a word from Aldrick, Tomlin brought in the staircase that hung from the side. The skipper placed his big compass on the maps, pointed out what course they should start on, and Daniel set the sails.

Abnezer look at what Daniel did and got up. “Can I help?” As Daniel and he worked on the sails of the second mast, Phorlis decided he would get up later, as soon as he had gotten used to the swaying motion of the ship.

As the airship picked up speed and altitude, its crew looked out over the land and the approaching water mass they would be flying over most of the time. It was, said the skipper, the shortest route.

The first hours of the flight went by as smooth as a baby’s freshly powdered behind. The weather was fine, the wind was fair and everyone seemed to have a reasonable time. Except for Phorlis, who had discovered the need to inform the fish beneath them about what he’d had for lunch several times.

Tomlin and Abnezer sat at the bow of the airship, looking out over the waters. Far below them they saw a six mast ship sail. “Hey Daniel, come look at that thing!”

Daniel, who had been talking to Aldrick, moved forward and looked. “Isn’t that a spectacular view?” he asked. “And the Pricosine was larger. Two more masts and…” He looked at the ship again. Something was not right in the picture.

“Daniel? Is something the matter?” Tomlin asked.

“That’s a ship of the Skinsh ko Talush,” Daniel said, looking at the colours of the sails. He noticed also the course it was sailing. And that was not the same as they were holding!

“Well, so?” Tomlin failed to see the problem.

Daniel quickly went back aft and looked at the compass. “Aldrick, we’re off course.”

“Oh, no, we are going straight ahead, Mr. Zacharias,” the inventor tried to calm Daniel down.

Daniel looked for the skipper, who had found a nice corner for a nap. Then he looked at the compass. “We are going west by north west, Aldrick. We have to go north by north west. Why did you change course?” As he asked it, he recalled that the steering wheel was useless.

“I-” Aldrick started, but Daniel was on his way to the sails already. The sails were fine. They were strapped down, they could not move.

“Something must have happened,” Daniel called back at Aldrick.

“Nothing did, Mr. Zacharias. I only added some more lift to the ship.”

“You what?” Daniel walked back to the inventor. “You made us go up?”

“Yes. The view is nicer that way.” Aldrick smiled innocently.

“Take us down. Now,” Daniel commanded. “Going up means that we get caught in a different layer of wind. That’s what threw us off course.” He had a hard time swallowing down the word ‘idiot’. The inventor was an inventor, not someone who knew about winds.

Aldrick stared at Daniel. “Mr. Zacharias… wind is wind…”

“Aldrick. I beg you. First get us downwards until we’re north by north west again. Then I will explain about wind. Please?”

“Oh well…” Aldrick pulled a handful of wires and the balloons hissed.

Daniel kept his eye on the compass. “Slowly… slowly… Hold it here for a while…” He made the inventor lower the airship a few more times, wondering how much he’d taken it up, until the compass showed they were going the right direction again.

By then the skipper had woken up. Daniel told him what had happened. “Can you plot a new course?”

The man nodded and started work on his map, occasionally staring out over the water. Finally he spoke the relieving words: “I think we’re good again, Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel hoped he was right.

Night fell, and aboard the airship a set of oil lamps was lit. In the daytime they had decided on a night roster. Daniel and Abnezer would sleep in turn to man the sails. Tomlin, the skipper and Aldrick would keep watch in turns to make sure they were still on course. Phorlis was left out as he was still trying to become accustomed to the flying boat.

The night went by without any disturbance. Daniel and Abnezer were rather groggy after their short naps, but the next day things went like clockwork. Changing the sails became routine, and Daniel more and more dared to fly under full sail, making the airship go very fast.

On the third day, the skipper ordered all sails stricken. As the airship’s speed was dropping to nothing, the skipper pointed at the map. “We should see these islands now.”

Tomlin looked at the compass and shrugged. He looked out over the water and shrugged again. “All nice and good, but where are they?”

The skipper looked at the man in a devastating way. “I said that we -should- see them now. Navigation at sea is not an exact science, and here in the air it is even more difficult. Sir.” It made for an uncomfortable moment.

“I suggest we fly on for a while longer,” Daniel said. “And if we don’t find them, we can see about flying in expanding circles.”

Tomlin nodded. He knew the routine from back when he was still in active duty. “Works for me.”

“We could also fly higher,” Aldrick chipped in, knowing he could be asking for problems.

Daniel looked at the inventor for a moment. Then he looked over the side of the airship, making an educated guess on their current altitude. “That might help. Take us up, Aldrick. Skipper, keep the course. Abnezer! I need you on the sails!”

They climbed. They flew on for an hour. And the islands came in sight.

“Do you think they are hiding out there?” Daniel asked the skipper.

“It is one of the options, Daniel. One of the six I have at hand. They’re based on reports of other survivors. Unfortunately, they too can only guess where the pirates really are. But they have to be around here.” The skipper dragged his finger around an area on the map that was too large for Daniel’s taste.

With some tricky manoeuvring, the crew managed to sail the airship around the islands. From the air, Daniel was certain, they should easily be able to spot ships as large as the Pricosine, and also the smaller merchant ship the pirates had used to raid them. But there were no ships to spot.

“Where to next, skipper?” Daniel asked, disappointment on his face.

A crashing sound made everyone look to Aldrick who stared at his feet. The hilt of his sword had fallen off and dropped on the bottom of the airship, which Daniel had named Flish.

“Is your family heirloom falling apart?” Phorlis asked, who had gotten in shape by then.

The skipper shook his head. “The chemicals of the water. They reach up to here.”

Daniel felt unpleasant by that news: they were over three hundred feet over the water’s surface.

The skipper told them the new course. Aldrick searched the layer of wind that was most favourable, which took them down to a mere ninety feet high. Abnezer and Daniel rigged the sails, assisted by Tomlin and Phorlis. At speed they left the islands.

37. It’s dangerous

“How good are we on your extra lift gas, Aldrick?” Daniel asked.

“That is all still fine, Mr. Zacharias,” the inventor said after tapping a glass vial that was contained in a Polychlon mantel. Daniel had seen him do that often but had no idea what to look for.

They had reached the second spot which was an option. It was as deserted as the islands, and they had proceeded to spot number three, which was a tremendous rock formation that rose up from the sea to astounding heights.

“Good. We’re going to need that perhaps,” Daniel said. “Are you okay, Aldrick? You’ve been here for a while already again.”

“I can manage, Mr. Zacharias,” the inventor said, but Daniel called Tomlin and asked if he could take over. There was something in the way Aldrick was moving his feet Daniel did not like.

As Aldrick was lying down, the high rocks were coming into view. The skipper’s calculation had been perfect: they were approaching the rock formation with the sun in their back, so the pirates, if they were there, would not see them until the last moment.

Tension on board rose, again, as they scanned the area. But as with the previous two places, there were no pirates.

“This is not going to work,” Aldrick said as he massaged his sore feet. “There are a million places where they can hide!” Abnezer and Phorlis tended to agree with him.

“Only thousands,” Daniel grumbled, “and we’re going to search each one of them until we find the rats.” That earnt him some unfriendly looks, but he didn’t care. “You can get off right here if you want. Just swim that way for a week, or hitch a ride on a Fringy, and you’ll be fine.”

The crew had been flying for six days already, and slowly there were situations developing and things happening that started to chew on people’s nerves.

“People, come on. We have searched half the spots now,” Tomlin said, “three more and we call it off, okay? You all knew this was going to be tough. It is tough. Deal with it, or, as Daniel said, get out now.”

There were grumbles, but nobody wanted out.

The skipper told the sailor men what course to take and the sails were set. Tomlin added lift to the balloons to take them over the pointy rocks, and the flight went on.

“We’re off to the coast now,” the skipper said. “We’re going there as it is an option, although a strange one. It’s close by.”

Close by proved to be relative. It was already approaching dusk as they sailed along the coastline. Daniel sat on the side of the airship that looked out over the ocean, the colours of the setting sun was setting the water on fire. He thought of Rhonda and of the strange short visit of Ombra Hozteng.

“Daniel?”

He turned his head towards Abnezer who looked out over the bow. “Yes?”

“I see boats.”

Daniel got up and stood next to Abnezer. He saw boats too. At least he saw parts of boats. He alerted the crew who readied themselves for battle. Several had Polychlon sticks with hooks. Aldrick held one also, as his sword had ceased to be. The inventor did keep to the back of the airship, as Daniel had told him. The man was precious in flying the airship, he should be kept away from fighting as much as possible.

Daniel took his special suitcase from under a bench. Tomlin stood next to him, his eyes glistening as Daniel opened the box.

“Oh my God,” said Tomlin. “You took that with you? Did they know?”

“I think they knew,” said Daniel as he hooked several of the appliances to his belt and handed some to Tomlin. “I guess they wanted me gone rather than count their bombs and artillery. I just hope the things still work.”

Tomlin nodded. He was very aware of the problems the water caused.

“This is the real thing, folks,” Daniel said. “If this isn’t, we’re going home. Aldrick, take us in low. We’ll jump off and then you get the hell out of here until you see us wave. Or if you don’t see any of us anymore. Then go home. At least you know where the pirate’s nest is then.”

“Yes. Daniel.” It was the first time Aldrick called Daniel by his first name. This was not the moment to be courteous. “Be careful. I don’t want to go home alone.”

Everyone put an improvised mask over their nose and mouth. Abnezer was handing out sticks that they had brought with them. It was not the best thing to fight with, but better than nothing.

Daniel and Tomlin stood at the bow, each holding two grenades, the security switches already off.

The airship’s slant wings almost touched the water as it sailed towards the strip of beach where people were walking back and forth from a stranded ship to a cave and back. They were obviously carrying goods. There were a few people on the narrow strip of beach who did not seem to work. Those probably were pirates supervising whatever was going on.

“Please, let that be them,” Daniel whispered. Then he cautioned the others. “Hit the deck!” He flung a grenade and aimed it towards the pirates. The thing exploded with a shock wave that made all people on the beach tumble and eat sand and gravel. Two of the pirates got the full blast of the grenade and got ripped to shreds by it. The grenade had become unstable very quickly.

Tomlin threw one of the sonic grenades also, causing more unrest and devastation and taking out a few more pirates.

They did not wait any longer. The airship had almost no speed anymore so they jumped, sticks at the ready, as dozens of pirates with whips and handsful of powder came running from several caves.

The men from the airship ran straight towards the pirates who flung the coughing powder at them, before grabbing their weapons. The masks worked, and the pirates, surprised that their preferred defence failed so gloriously, faced retribution from five very angry men.

Daniel and Tomlin fired their weapons as fast as they could, killing handsful of pirates in less than two minutes. They had enormous advantages: the pirates had not expected this attack, and they had never done battle against men with advanced automatic weapons.

Daniel fought a pirate off, who tried to use a club against him. The club hit him full on the arm, but the Glandrine skin seemed to resist most of the blow. Daniel shot the pirate and fired at will at all the others he got in sight. Most of the fighting and shooting would be his share and Tomlin’s, as they had the main fire-power. As long as it lasted.

The skipper, Phorliss and Abnezer, sticks in their hands, headed for the people that had fallen down near the ship. “Pricosine!” they shouted, “Pricosine! Over here!” It was a strange battle cry, but Daniel had suggested they’d shout the name of the ship. That would be something the sailors would recognise. The three men lashed out at the pirates that got in their way.

Several enslaved sailors got up. “Yes! Pricosine!” The skipper and Abnezer handed out the sticks they carried, and the prisoners turned against the remaining pirates who still fought like maniacs.

A large shape suddenly stormed through the ranks of fighting people, hitting at everyone it passed, taking down several of them with vicious blows.

Daniel saw it go and recognised it. “Watch out over there! That’s the Bonto! It’s dangerous!” He aimed and fired, but at that moment his handgun had decided it hated the chemical environment.

The Bonto charged towards the skipper. Abnezer took a swing at it with a stick, hitting it full in the head. The impact made the stick fly from his hands and the beast rammed the skipper who went down like a sack of salt.

Tomlin managed a good shot, taking the gamble he might hit the wrong target. The Bonto staggered on for a few more feet, then it collapsed.

Abnezer cursed and picked up the skipper, half carrying him and half dragging the unconscious man through the water, to get him away from the fighting on the narrow strip of beach. He knew they would need the skipper to get back home. Leaving him on the beach, with a Bonto that might wake up again, was not an option.

Phorliss and many of the Pricosine crew were bashing away at the pirates, who were forced to withdraw into their cave. In the first minutes of the attack, their numbers had dwindled like brave snowflakes in a scorching desert.

“Down, everyone!” Tomlin screamed as he tossed his last grenade after the pirates.

The device did not explode to its full extent, but still a respectable amount of rock came down, sealing off most of the cave’s exit.

A strange silence spread over the beach. Daniel and Tomlin quickly assessed the situation. Phorlis and three sailors lay dead in the sand, as did many pirates. Many of the sailors were hurt, either from the fight or from bad treatment.

“Daniel…”

Daniel recognised the voice. “Ulaman.”

The captain looked awful. He missed a hand, there was a rag around his head that was meant to be a bandage. The pirates had gotten to him badly. The man staggered towards Daniel but fell down after a few steps. Some sailors hurried forward to help him up.

Daniel was there too, to lift the fallen bear. “We’re here to take you home,” he said. “Tomlin, go and signal Aldrick.”

Aldrick had not gone far. With only little sail, the only way available was up, so he was able to set down the airship quickly. The rescued sailors, most of them from the Pricosine, some came from other ships, boarded the boat. The attack force followed, as Daniel and Tomlin secured their safety with what means they had. Sticks and stones. The pirate’s cave however was still closed, there was no danger coming from there yet, and the Bonto had not moved yet either.

The soldiers jumped on board, after which the airship rose into the air. Slower than usual, but it worked. Daniel stared at the massacre they had left on the beach, a last grenade in his hand. He saw the small merchant ship that had started all this.

He flicked off the security and threw the grenade at the ship. Nothing happened; the grenade had been affected already. After a curse he turned and worked on the sails, as the others from the crew were taking care of the wounded.

-=-=-

They had been flying for a few hours already, following the coastline. After making sure everything was in order, Daniel had looked for Draiky and talked to her. He had told her about Ombra’s visit. It seemed to bring power back to the woman.

“She really came to see you? For me?”

“Yes.” Daniel told her about the unfortunate short visit and the strange end, but Draiky seemed to miss most of that. For her it was important only that Ombra had done something.

Daniel smiled and let Draiky bask in the surprise. It made him feel good. He went round to see who else they had on board. He found most of his friends, but walked around again in search of Bilk, the alien. Finally he kneeled down with Ulaman and Xandree to ask.

They filled him in about how Bilk had tried to fight himself free and met his end that way. They also told him how a several others of the crew had been killed, just to set an example, to crush morale and anyone’s desire to try an escape or revolt.

“This man, Birkle, is very good at breaking people, Daniel,” Ulaman said. “I have yet to see someone who can be as cruel as he is. He actually whipped his ape for not killing someone slowly enough.”

Daniel shuddered. It made him feel sick, but also even more glad that he had done all what he had, to save his friends. He looked around the airship and his heart cringed. The state these people were in was awful.

He went back aft and checked with Tomlin and the skipper, who was too stubborn to stay unconscious. The man was already working on where they were and how long it would take them to get back to Skarak.

Abnezer went round and round, making sure people were okay, handing out food and water to drink. Daniel had not thought the wrestler had that in him. At the same time he felt bad about the people they had lost in the fight. He did not have much time to feel these things though…

“Twanngggg…” The sound was accompanied by a shudder that went through the airship, causing many people to get up. That again made the airship sway.

“People, all sit down!” Tomlin yelled. He and Daniel went around the airship to see what could have caused the unnerving sound. Tomlin found the problem in one of the floaters that held the airship in the air: one of the cables that held the thing to the ship had ripped. It was still there, it was just flapping about, out of reach.

They made several attempts to grab the line, but it mocked them, staying out of reach of their fingers. Daniel looked up, estimating the danger. So far the floater was still captured in the net of five cables, but there would be a serious problem if one of the two cables next to the ripped one would go also.

38. Win one, lose one

Over the days that followed, they made a few attempts using a stick and a hook to get to the flying cable. They all failed, the only result one of the sticks falling down.

“Leave it,” Daniel said. “I don’t want anyone going down after that stick. We’ll just have to be careful and pray that no other cable snaps.” It worried him that they were flying so high up to catch the proper wind. A problem here, at over nine hundred feet high, would immediately turn into a disaster. Also, nobody had thought of bringing thick clothes and more blankets, and the air temperature up there was uncomfortable. Daniel, and also Tomlin, had not considered that. Their experience did not cover those things.

Shivering, Aldrick and the skipper were conferring about their course. Following the coast line was their safest bet. Going over sea was the shortest route, but the idea of flying at this altitude with nothing but water underneath, with so many people on board, and the problem with one of the floaters, gave safety right of way.

Sitting at the bow Daniel looked down. He saw some ships sailing far below. Ulaman and Stroro, who had by now recovered enough, sat next to him. “Wind’s wrong down there,” Daniel remarked.

Ulaman nodded. “Yes.” He put his handless arm on Daniel’s shoulder. “I don’t know how to thank you, Daniel.”

“No need to, Ulaman,” Daniel said. “I had to do this. Anyone would have.”

Ulaman’s silence could mean anything.

“Still, you did it, and you got us out of there,” Stroro filled in. “We all owe you our lives.”

“Let’s first see about getting home,” Daniel said. “We’re not there yet.” He looked to where Xandree was taking care of two sailors who had gone feverish. These two, and the ones most badly hurt, had been put as close to the steam cylinder as possible. They had even taken some of the cabin around it apart, to make the warmth easier accessible. The others on the airship took turns near the hot engine.

“Daniel?” Aldrick half askingly said.

Daniel got up. “Yes?”

“I think the skipper is not well…” Aldrick pointed at the man who was lying on the floor.

Daniel hurried over to the man, who did not react to calling, shaking or splashes of water. That was the last thing they needed. “Do you know where we are?” Daniel asked Aldrick, as Abnezer and Stroro put the skipper somewhere out of the way. One more patient for Xandree to watch over, he thought wryly.

“He was just explaining that to me,” Aldrick said. The look on his face already told Daniel the bad news. “But before he could point it out, he collapsed.”

Daniel closed his eyes for a moment. Not that too. “Ulaman, can you come over here?”

The big man, holding on to the lines with his remaining hand and avoiding to look down, came to the cabin.

“Can you tell where we are?”

Ulaman carefully looked around and then at the map. He muttered something, looked a few times more and then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Daniel. I can’t make this out. Air navigation is not the same. Things look wrong.”

The coast line, far below, was a long straight line. Trouble was that the coast line on the map contained many straight lines. They could be over any one of those.

“Aldrick, when did you last see a large town?” Daniel asked.

The man looked surprised and lost. “Uhm… I didn’t really pay attention… I’m sorry.”

Daniel looked around. “I want everyone who can look from his or her eyes, to look out for the next town. We have to get down, and near a town is the only option that we get anywhere. Once we are-”

“Daniel, you mean like there?” Abnezer said, pointing, his teeth clattering from the cold wind..

The man’s eyes were amazing, Daniel thought. In the far distance, almost impossible to make it out, was a little blob that might indeed be a town. Together with Ulaman he started calculating how far the town might still be. Then, after discussing things with Aldrick, he decided that they would keep their current altitude for another half hour.

After that time, Aldrick started releasing steam from the floaters, gently taking them downwards. The change in altitude quickly brought about a change in temperature, and everyone relaxed. As the airship came in lower air-levels, Daniel, Tomlin and Abnezer worked the sails like madmen, to keep the ship on course, while Aldrick did what he could on his end.

The crew members of the Pricosine that would be able to help had to grit their teeth, as they could not do a thing except sit to keep the airship level.

At one point, the airship dropped down hard, as if a layer of air just gave way. Everyone grabbed something or someone, many fell to the bottom of the boat. Abnezer hung from a line, Draiky holding on to his legs to prevent him from falling down.

“Crap, what was that!” Daniel cried out, his worry venting. “Is everyone okay?”

From everywhere voices said they were okay. Xandree looked worried but gestured that her patients were no worse than before.

The town came closer and closer, as the airship flew at no more than thirty feet at best.

“Damn it, Daniel!” Ulaman then yelled out, “that is Boragov!”

“What?!” Daniel could not believe it. Boragov was a town only some forty miles away from Skarak.

It did not take them long to reach Boragov. Aldrick proved to be a master of landing: he let the airship’s hull touch over the water and slowed it down as Daniel and Tomlin released the steam from the floaters. They kept enough hot air in them to keep them hovering. Aldrick had warned them a few more times that they had to remain dry. As the boat reached the shore, they were near the harbour of Boragov, where dozens of people had witnessed the approach of the strange flying object and its landing, and now were cheering at their approach.

Daniel, Stroro, Tomlin and a few others carefully brought the floaters close to the boat and tied them up high, to keep them out of water’s reach. Then, on a single sail, they slowly came into the harbour.

As soon as they were in shouting range, Tomlin requested medical assistance, and blankets for everyone. They had been flying low for a while, but still most people on board were still suffering from the cold, most of all the ones that had been living in poor circumstances while being under the cruel supervision of pirates.

People came running with all kinds of things that the ship faring people might need. Everyone was taken off the airship, now bobbing on the water and tied to the quay as a normal boat. Gallons of tea, fake coffee and stronger things were brought, along with food, and two doctors were there who had been alarmed were tending to the sick.

A police officer came closer. “What is the matter here, gentlemen? Is anyone able to tell me?”

Daniel hoisted himself to his feet, a cup of hot strong tea in his hands. He told the man their story, incredible as it sounded.

“You’ve been… flying? In that?” The policeman pointed at the blue boat. “I hope you do not mind me asking what is in your cup, sir…”

“It is tea, officer.”

Some of the people who had been there when the airship had landed on the water came to Daniel’s help and vowed to the policeman that the boat had indeed flown.

“And what are your plans now, sir, after your upheaval creating arrival?”

“Once our sick have been seen to, we go on to Skarak, officer,” said Daniel.

“Ah. I see. And you will be… flying there, I assume? With your boat?”

“Airship,” Aldrick corrected him. The vessel had proven to be worthy of the title.

“Airship, you say. It does look like a boat to me, sir. And you are?” The policeman feigned professionalism. It was obvious though that curiosity was his ulterior motive.

“I am Aldrick Bunzing. Inventor. I created this airship.”

“Of course, sir…” After a frown, the policeman sauntered off, but did not leave the harbour area. He wanted to see the rest of this.

An hour after that, the doctors agreed that the sick people could be moved further. “We shall inform our medical brothers in Skarak about them,” one of them said, already reaching for the hydger in his bag.

“Thank you, sir,” Daniel said, as lightning seemed to hit him. He left Tomlin to arrange some things and he walked off, taking his own hydger. He looked up the number of the mysterious person and requested a connection, but there was no answer. He decided he’d try again later, put away his device and returned to the boat, where most people had gone aboard again already. The sick ones were safely tucked in, and the broken line on the floater had been repaired.

Aldrick took his position at the engine. Daniel and Abnezer set the sails, as Ulaman was at the map and the compass. Accompanied by the sound of many cheers the small ship left the harbour. The policeman stood to the far side, watching the proceedings.

Aldrick, once the ship had left the harbour, did his trick with the levers. The floaters filled up. The straps that had held them up were released to allow the balloons all the space they needed. And then Aldrick added the gas for the extra lift. Slowly the airship was lifted from the water. Daniel grinned at Ulaman and Tomlin. The sails were raised. This time the wind was with them; it had changed and it was ready to push them to Skarak in almost a straight line. As they flew off, the crowds in the Boragov harbour went crazy with cheers and whistles.

The last leg of their journey went by as in a dream, so quickly. In far less than two hours they crossed the last forty miles to Skarak.

-=-=-

Tomlin used his hydger to inform some people they were coming in, once they were in range to connect. Daniel, in that time, was talking to Seigner Waldo Skinsh ko Talush, the president of the Ship Owner Society, to inform him about the rescued people from the Pricosine.

Aldrick had decided to land the airship outside the harbour again and sail in, like they had done in Boragov.

A strip in the harbour had been cleared for them. There were many people present, many of them family members of the sailors. The news of their arrival had spread like wildfire.

Daniel smiled as he spotted a tiny woman with white hair among the masses. He touched Draiky’s shoulder for a moment and was rewarded with a hug and a big smile.

The airship moored at a spot where several policemen had cleared a large area. After that, everyone left the small ship. It bore the signs of being home to so many people for many days. The sick were carefully brought ashore and taken away to the hospital for a proper check-up and treatment. There were reporters of the newspapers. Seigner Skinsh ko Talush had a speech prepared, and all eyes and ears were his as he spoke. Clelem Dandra ko Galem was there, with his son Warlem. Clelem mingled with the people of the crew, but for unspoken reasons he ignored Daniel.

Before he could approach the owner of the Pricosine, Daniel was called to the front by Skinsh ko Talush. He was awarded an honorary title that did not mean much to him. As soon as he could, he retreated to the back of the crowd, where he found a spot to sit. He had never felt so tired. He had not allowed himself sleep aboard the airship, almost feeling bad to discover when he had nodded off. He’d see to Clelem later-

“Daniel…” a soft voice said. Daniel recognised it without looking.

“Warlem.”

“You did the amazing, Daniel. The impossible. And with such style. I hate to trouble you, but I do need to speak with you,” said the young man.

There was an urgency in his voice that Daniel could not resist. He got up. “Okay. Where? Here?”

Warlem shook his head. “No. Too public.”

Daniel nodded. “Give me a moment.” He went to where Tomlin, Aldrick and the Skipper were standing, told them he was leaving quietly and returned to where Warlem was waiting.

They walked off, to a carriage, Daniel wondering what this would be all about.

39. Missing

As soon as they had entered the carriage, it started to move.

“You are not waiting for your father?” Daniel asked, somewhat without need but curious about the why.

“No. He doesn’t seem to care so much. Daniel, I am really sorry to inconvenience you like this, and when you hear the reason you have my permission to slap me in the face, or anywhere you prefer. We do need your help, though.” Warlem looked in the most pleading way Daniel had someone ever seen.

“Okay. What’s the problem?”

“My sister is gone.”

“Gone where?” Daniel was not sure this was a joke, but it had the makings of it. It couldn’t be one though. Warlem was not the kind of person to go for practical jokes.

“We don’t know. Four days ago she just disappeared. Not a word from her that she was going to do something like that, and also none of her things have been taken. We worry, Daniel, that someone abducted her.” No matter how sneering Warlem could act towards his sister, the man’s face showed serious worry now. “We are going to see my mother now. She too wants to ask you for your help, but I think it is good that you know this beforehand.”

“Your mother. At your house.”

“Yes.”

“And your father? He will either tear my heart out or throw me down the hill.” Daniel was not looking forward to a confrontation, even if he felt sorry for the man about his daughter. But Warlem’s remark…

“I think he would opt for both, Daniel, he is really mightily displeased about something,” Warlem shook his head. “If you feel like sleeping, please, go ahead. We’ll be there in a while. I’ll wake you up.”

“I’ll try. Just close my eyes for a second.” A second was all it took to make him fall asleep.

“Daniel?” It took Warlem some serious shaking to wake the man up. “I am truly sorry to wake you up already. We’ve arrived.”

“Yeah, that’s okay.” It wasn’t, but Daniel was not going to back out of this. A was said, so B was the logical next step.

They clambered out of the carriage and into the basket under the floater. Swiftly they were going up the hill, and Daniel felt a tweak in his heart over the airship that had done so miraculously well. He shivered, from the cold, the lack of sleep, from the tension of the past days that was still in him. A shower, food and a bed were on his mind, the last two not necessarily in that order.

The floater stopped. They got out, stepped into the reception building. Warlem grabbed a coat and offered it to Daniel. “You look cold.”

Daniel did not object; he was cold. He put on the coat and didn’t mind how it would smell after giving it back. He followed Warlem through the transparent tube and into the large hall with the fountain. The young man led him to a sunny terrace.

Ugidra, Clelem’s wife, was sitting there. As the two stepped onto the terrace, she got up. Her face was red, her eyes puffed up from crying. “Mr. Zacharias…”

“Warlem told me what appears to have happened, my lady,” Daniel said. He had trouble getting his head together and saying the right things. “I am sorry if I say dumb things, I am quite tired, but can you tell me what happened?”

Ugidra nodded. “I know. I understand. And I appreciate that you came to listen to me, very much.” She then offered him a chair and told him that Rayko had indeed disappeared without a word four days earlier. “She has never done that, Mr. Zacharias. The day before she had one of her arguments with her father before and she was very depressed after that, but-” Ugidra looked at Warlem “-that has happened before.”

“Regularly,” Warlem confirmed. “And that leaves me stuck with her goffeesh.”

“Golfdish?” Daniel asked, wondering if he had heard that right.

Warlem sort of nodded. “Her pet.”

Goldfish, Daniel thought, typically the pet for a stuck-up girl. “Warlem told me nothing of her things were taken as she left. Disappeared.”

“Indeed. She would never leave without some of her things.”

“And you have tried to contact her on the hydger, I assume?”

“Yes. Someone in the staff is trying to call her every hour, but no one has heard from her.”

So her hydger was responding. Maybe he could do something with that.

“Mother, do not forget the recordings,” Warlem reminded her.

Recordings? Daniel was surprised.

“Ah, yes, how foolish of me.” Ugidra reached for the oversized locket she was wearing and opened it. The left side was a display like Daniel’s device had, just smaller. She did a few things with the incredibly small controls on the right side and handed the locket to Daniel. “If you touch the left side, you will see what Warlem means.”

“We have one of the most amazing things in our house, Daniel,” Warlem said with some pride, “it is a device that can store moving images. There are not many of them.”

Daniel looked at the young poet for a moment and touched the left side of the locket. The small display came to life. It showed, in black and white, a view of a part of the garden, probably behind the house, and a door. The images were moving, be it not smooth. They looked jumpy, as if the recording had been made only a few images per second. For several seconds nothing happened, except shadows jumping. Then Daniel gasped. A cloaked figure, the cape wide and billowing in the wind, carefully moved towards the door. The person, whoever it was, fumbled with the door, then disappeared inside. The jumpy movie stopped.

“Can I see that again?” Daniel asked. He had seen it well, he just didn’t believe it. Warlem did something to the thing and Daniel watched the short movie again. As it ended he handed the locket back to Ugidra. “Do you have any idea who that is? And when this is recorded?”

She shook her head. “No one who has seen this-” she shook the locket “-knows who it might be. The recording is of the evening before we noticed Rayko gone. She was just… gone… the next morning.” Tears started rolling down her cheeks again, as the pain bit her again.

Daniel told them that this was the same person who had lured him to Maliser Park and stunned him, on the evening of the soirée. “I don’t know who it is either, but this person seems to hold a grudge against your husband, lady Dandra ko Galem.”

“Can you find my little girl for me, Mr. Zacharias? I will pay you anything. Grant you anything. As long as I have Rayko back.”

Daniel took in a deep breath. “I can’t promise anything, my lady, but I will do what I can.”

“Thank you, Mr. Zacharias, thank you, thank you. If you need funds, or anything, just let me know about it. I will transfer my hydger sign to your hydger; if there is anything I can assist you with, you must call on me. Day or night.” Ugidra and Daniel exchanged numbers on their hydgers. Warlem also told Daniel that he could call on him at any time. The poet was very concerned about his sister’s well-being, and wanted her back home again too.

Daniel got up. “I should go home now, my lady, and refresh myself.” He was near keeling over now and all his built-up knowledge of the planet’s etiquette had crawled away in a dark corner.

Ugidra got up. “Mr. Zacharias, I insist that you do so here. I will immediately arrange for a guest room with a private bath, and I will have food sent to it. Warlem, can you see to that?”

The poet got up and walked into the large hall after just a nod.

“Lady Dandra ko Galem, I thank you, but your husband will not be pleased to see me. He was not very friendly earlier today already.”

Ugidra smiled. “He won’t know you are here. Please take my word for that, Mr. Zacharias. The house is very large, and the servants know when to be silent.”

Daniel was not in a mood to argue. Deep down inside he was glad he did not have to travel back to his own place. He was not certain if he would still be awake to get out of the carriage.

A male servant came to the terrace. “If you will follow me, sir…” He guided Daniel through a few corridors, reaching a room that looked like a luxury suite of one of the famous Stardrift Hotels Daniel had once read about. The floor was covered with brown and orange carpeting, the walls were a soft beige and the bed in the room was large and inviting. As the servant showed Daniel around in the bathroom, another servant brought a tray with food.

Daniel was impressed how fast that all was arranged. The servants left him, he wolfed down most of the food and considered the bath. It did not take him long to decide that the bed now was more important. He threw his clothes off, rolled into the bed and was enveloped with a black nothing within seconds.

-=-=-

Waking up was a strange experience for Daniel. The smell, the sounds, the softness of the bed and the light created an ensemble that confused his still groggy brain. Slowly he sat up, stared around the room and only then he recalled where he was. In the house of his former employer. Without the man knowing it. He fell back into the pillows and sighed. A firm rub of his face brought more activity to him.

Daniel got out of the bed, found his way to the bathroom and filled the bath. The water, running quickly, was hot and inviting. As the tub was filling up, Daniel peeked out of the window, over which a curtain had been drawn. It was light. He had no idea what the time was. He kept the curtain closed and disappeared into the bathroom for a while, soaking and cleaning himself up for the first time in far too long. Heaven, if something like that existed, he mused, had to be like this.

He resisted the urge to fill up the tub again. Instead, he rubbed himself dry with a large white towel. It carried the sign of Dandra ko Galem that he had also seen on his hydger. He put on the bathrobe that lay on a side table, neatly folded up, and went back into the bedroom.

To his surprise he found his clothes, washed and dried, lying folded on a chair next to the bed. His hydger was lying on top of the stack. It made him wonder how long he had been asleep. He had not heard anyone come in and go around the room. As he was dressing, he noticed a sheet of paper on the table that was against the wall, near the door.

’Mr. Zacharias. Please ring the bell when you are awake. It is the cord next to the door. Thank you.’ it told him. The handwriting was simple, as was the message.

Feeling close to human again, and equally presentable, Daniel tugged the cord. He heard nothing, but chanced that it had been enough. While he waited for something to happen, probably someone to come to his room, he peered through the curtains again. His room was located somewhere at the backside of the house. There was nothing but garden and more hill as far as he could see. He tried to see where the path was where the cloaked person had come to the house, as he recalled the video he had seen, but that was invisible from where he stood.

There was a knock on the door. “May I come in, sir?” It was the voice of a woman.

“Of course, please do,” Daniel said, stepping away from the curtain.

The door swung open. The woman who had brought him food before entered, she had another tray with food with her. “Good afternoon, Mr. Zacharias.” She carefully closed the door behind her, balancing the tray on one hand. She’d obviously done that a lot.

Afternoon? “Good afternoon. Can you tell me how long I have been sleeping?”

The woman put the tray on the table. “Almost a whole day, sir. You must have been very tired, sir.” She then pointed out the assorted food items on the tray. “If there is anything you want, apart from this, you can always ask, sir,” she assured him with a smile. “Seigner Warlem asks you to call on him with the hydger, Mr. Zacharias, when you are ready to leave.”

Daniel had no more questions that she could answer, so she left him alone as he attacked the food.

40. Daniel Detective

It only was a short communication that happened with Warlem after Daniel had finished eating. “I’m coming,” was all the poet said.

Warlem did not waste time. He knocked on the door and came in only a few minutes later. “Daniel. You look much better. I dread to describe the state you were in yesterday.”

“I feel better too, thank you. It kind of strange being here, but the room service is a lot better than at my apartment,” Daniel grinned, staring at the strange fair haired beast that hung over Warlem’s shoulder.

“You can breathe easy,” Warlem said. “My father has left already. He has no idea you are here, and nobody is going to tell him you were. Is there anything my mother or I can do for you before you leave? We really hope you can find Rayko.”

“I would like some more information on her,” Daniel said. “Things she likes, friends, perhaps a reason to disappear? And what’s that… giant ferret doing on your shoulder, if I may ask?”

“Ferret?” Warlem picked the ferret up and stroked it. “This is not a ferret. This is a goffeesh. her name is Blondie. She’s Rayko’s.”

Daniel frowned for a moment. “So it was not a goldfish after all…”

“No. This is not a fish.” It was Warlem’s turn now looked a bit puzzled. “It’s a goffeesh. A goffeesh needs a lot of attention. That is why I have her. Care to hold her for a while? It is very pacifying to hold a goffeesh, Daniel.” He held out the long-stretched animal in one hand. It hung there, seemingly very much at peace. It probably was used to being handed around.

Daniel however thanked him for the honour.

Warlem nodded as he put the goffeesh over his shoulder again. “I think, my friend, the information you seek is something you should discuss also with my mother. We can answer your questions together…”

Daniel followed Warlem to the large hall. Udriga, Clelem’s wife, sat on a large couch, drinking tea.

“Oh, Mr. Zacharias. How do you feel?” she asked.

“A lot better, my lady.” Daniel then had the time to ask his questions. None of Rayko’s friends sounded like the type that would coax her into running off. And neither of the two people could think of a reason for her to disappear without a word. More and more the cloaked person took the centre of attention. It just didn’t make much sense. But then, many things suffered from that.

“And the row she had with her father just before she vanished?” Daniel tried one more time.

“Those happen frequently,” Ugidra said. “Rayko has a mind of her own, and that clashes with the ideas of her father. If they don’t have words at least twice a week, one of them is ill.”

“Being ill has not stopped them before, mother,” Warlem reminded her.

“Then, please, allow me to just mention some names,” Daniel said. “Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy? Would he have anything to gain from this kidnapping, if it really is one?”

Ugidra shook her head. “No. He and Clelem have their differences, but I don’t see him do this. He has always been friendly to us.”

“The shape of the man in the cloak would certainly fit him, though,” Warlem thought out loud.

Ugidra watched her son. “Seigner Huajo would never do something like this. He wouldn’t be able to, physically. His walking is bad enough, Warlem, do not mock the man, please.”

“Then what about the senator, Seigner Dirrit ko Asac?” Daniel just tried the name, to provoke a reaction.

The two people stared at Daniel in disbelief. “You cannot be serious, Mr. Zacharias,” Ugidra finally said. “The senator is a really dear friend. He adores Rayko, and he gets along with my husband very well.”

“Do you then know of other people who could be considered enemies of your husband?” Daniel was sure that Clelem would have some more. He just had to think of the way the man had treated him, which made his blood temperature drop a few degrees. At least, that was how it felt to him.

Ugidra and Warlem went through a set of names that meant nothing to Daniel, but there was no one they were able to point at. Except for perhaps Seigner Folkling ko Keran. Or Seigner Willin ko Noles. They were ship owners also, and it seeped through that Clelem had pulled some nasty business trick on them that would give them reason to be less friendly towards the man.

Daniel got the suspicion that the list was longer than the two people wanted to tell him.

They talked for a while longer, but nothing new came out of that, so Daniel left the Dandra ko Galems and called for a carriage home. Warlem, who had accompanied him to the foot of the hill in the floater, insisted to handle the costs for that ride.

On the road, Daniel took his device and tried to talk to Tomlin. His friend was at home, also recovering from his adventures.

“Daniel, rascal, where are you? What was so urgent that you ran off yesterday?”

Daniel explained so much as he could and wanted, about Rayko’s disappearing act and what he had heard and seen. “And now I wonder if you have any idea about the things that go about in that environment of ship owners, the politics and those kinds of things.”

Tomlin frowned. “I’m not really the person to talk to about that, Daniel. Sorry, but I am in a different line of work.”

“I know, you’re in the pirate fighting business lately.” They laughed. It helped to release some of the tension that was still inside them. “Well, thank you anyway, Tomlin. I hope I did not disturb your rest with this call.”

“You can call me any time, Daniel, and you know it. So don’t give me that, okay?”

They ended the call. As the carriage rolled into Skarak, the hydger called for Daniel’s attention. It was Ulaman contacting him.

“Daniel, where are you? You were busy just now!”

“Hey, Ulaman. Good to see you. How are you?” Daniel was really glad to see the captain’s face.

“I’m fine, Daniel. They patched me up some at the hospital and then Xandree made them agree that she could take me home.”

Daniel laughed. Xandree was Xandree. Even after the ordeal she had been through. “How is Xandree doing?” She had not been looking her best either.

“Running the ship, as usual,” Ulaman grumbled, but the wink he added told Daniel things were fine. “Now you stop all your questions and come over here. We’re all here and we miss you. We need you to be here, Daniel.”

“Where is here?”

“Our house. I will give you the address, and then you get here as fast as you can.” It was not a request. That was underlined by the display fading into a set of numbers.

Daniel stored the identification in the hydger and then used that to change the destination of the carriage. The change in goal also had a change of mindset in store for him. For now he simply looked forward to seeing his friends again, instead of being faced with the problems that the disappearance of that mud-ball playing girl had thrown into his lap.

The ride to Ulaman and Xandree did not take long. Daniel was glad his clothes were clean and that he was feeling so much better. Showing up there like the smelly type he’d been when he went to the Dandra ko Galem house would have been bad. He had just been so tired he couldn’t have cared less, then.

The house of the captain and his wife appeared to be quite small. It looked as if someone had thought it a great idea to take a wide alley and turn part of that into a house. The front door was hardly wide enough to grant Ulaman entry into the place, Daniel grinned as the carriage stopped in front of it. Three small windows over each other, next to the door, had to supply all the light for what was behind that door. What was lacking in width of the house, the height had to make up. It was three storeys high, higher than most other buildings in the street. That gave the house a very strange appearance, compared to the rest.

Daniel knocked on the door. It only took seconds before it opened.

Stroro’s grinning face appeared from the relative darkness behind it. “Daniel. Come in. We’ve been waiting for you.”

The pirate-fighter came into a strangely formed long living room, which was to be expected considering the narrowness of the house. The amount of familiar and happy faces made him feel amazing and when they saw him come in, they all in turn came to greet him. Daniel was pleasantly surprised to see Draiky there, with Ombra.

Quickly Xandree arranged for a place where Daniel could sit, and someone else provided him with tea and sailor’s biscuits. The best kind. Then the crew overloaded Daniel for a while, telling him about how they had been treated by the pirates, and what they had endured while they had been kept as nothing better than slaves.

Daniel had a hard time at several moments, as he heard all the stories. He had worried about their fate, but he had not worried hard enough, he understood now. It made him so immensely more grateful to persist in getting these men and women out of there.

After the avalanche of words that his friends had to share with him, while also showering him and the other people with gratitude about how they had come to save them, Daniel explained that he’d had no other choice. “I just had to try this. And I am glad it all worked out so well.”

Tea had been replaced with beer and the local variety of rum. Daniel settled for the beer. He still had a promise to keep, to look for the missing person. Rum would not do his brain much good for that.

“What are you lot going to do now?” Daniel asked.

“The Seigner is having a new ship built, Daniel. It is the Pricosine 2. He told us yesterday, remember?” Darigyn frowned.

“I missed his speech,” Daniel elaborated. He remembered the trip to the shipyard, and the words he had caught there, as he was stuck on top of the parts on deck. “I was called away for something. So he is getting a new ship. That sounds good.”

“It will be,” Darigyn said, fire spreading through him. Part of that was his enthusiasm about the new ship, part of it was the rum, without a doubt. “And all who want can sail on it again, he said. He said that he felt good to see all of us back.”

Daniel nodded. The sour taste that he had, about Clelem not making any serious attempt to save the crew, came back double force. “That sounds fabulous, Darigyn.”

“You’re coming with us again, aren’t you, Daniel? You’re a good man on board,” Ulaman added to the conversation.

“Well, the Seigner has not asked me about that,” Daniel said truthfully. “He told me that I am no longer working for him.”

This news caused quite some uproar among the people present. Several stared at him, others were immediately on their feet, informing Daniel that they would all go to talk to the Seigner about that. It took Daniel a while to calm everyone down and hold them from doing things that they might regret later. He felt good about their wish to keep him as part of the crew, though.

“I have a new assignment at the moment.” He told them about Rayko who had gone missing. “Her mother asked me to find her, and I am currently looking for clues on what might have happened.”

Another storm of words and comments streamed over the long table, ranging from ‘who cares about that girl anyway’ to ‘give me the bastard who took her and I’ll take him apart’.

To Daniel’s surprise it was Ombra, the tiny woman, who came over to him. She sat down next to him. “Daniel… I am certain you can find the woman. You brought so many people back. We are all proud to call you a friend. If there is something we can do for you, please ask. I am sure that everyone here agrees with what I am saying.”

All sailors in the room had fallen silent as Ombra spoke. After she’d finished talking, they all cheered and made it clear they agreed with her.

Xandree got up. “Daniel… I don’t know if you have heard, but we know that the Seigner sometimes has a problem with the senator. Dirrit ko Asac. Ulaman and I feel that you should go and talk with the senator.”

“The senator?” Daniel could not believe what he heard. “I met the senator, at the evening party at their house. He can’t be connected to that.”

“The senator has a problem with something he fights, Daniel,” Ulaman said. “He is political and does things to get rid of drugs. But everyone knows that drugs are his weakness also. There are rumours that the Seigner sometimes -uhm- helps the senator. And that then has all kinds of things with politics that follow from that.”

It was not the first time that Daniel heard of the senator being somewhat of a drugs user. But he had not heard before that Clelem might have a hand in that. And how would he be helping? With drugs? Or with money to get them? Or with contacts? This all sounded far-fetched. Rumours. But then… where there was smoke, there usually was fire.

“And what do you all think of her brother,” Daniel asked, trying to invoke a reaction.

“The dandy? He is scared of anything larger than a sheet of paper with words on it, Daniel!” The crew told him about a time that Warlem had been aboard the old Pricosine, and how the man had already become seasick while the boat had been moored.

That was contradicting what Daniel knew. On the new ship, Warlem had only complained about the time and the cold, not about being on a ship and becoming sick. It was a moment where Daniel wished he could go back to being just a soldier, and not an investigator. He was not cut out for this.

41. Senator Sygra Dirrit ko Asac

Daniel said goodbye to his friends when the sun had since long traded places with the three moons that circled the planet in an awkward cluster. In the dimly lit street he summoned a carriage. Normally he would just walk home. Today however, he’d had a good time, and a decent number of drinks. And the influence of the drinks, he was certain, would make him see all kinds of places of Skarak that might be interesting, but not the most interesting one: his bed.

When Daniel came in, he shivered. So long had he been gone. So much had happened. So strange, he thought, that the first night he had been back in Skarak, he had spent in the house of Clelem Dandra ko Galem. Without the man knowing it. That was really too bizarre for words.

He took a quick shower and headed for dreamland.

-=-=-

Daniel woke up after a night of very disturbing dreams. Just about everyone he had met on this planet had appeared in it, and many of them had performed in a circle dance around Rayko. That was something that puzzled him most.

Over breakfast he pondered the things he should do now. How would he find a young woman that had disappeared without a trace? What did he know about her, even? Just that she was stuck-up, hated him and argued with her father a lot. If he just knew what that was about, that might give him some clues, but asking her father was not something appealing at the moment.

Daniel decided to find out something more about the senator. All the rumours there were about that man were vague and confusing. The man had helped Daniel out a few times, Daniel had taken a liking to the senator.

He needed some time to find out where the senator was living. Of course, the senator lived in the Zoroon community. It was quite a surprise for Daniel to find that his address was in a public register which was stored on the hydger. There was no contact number in the register, which was hardly surprising. After finishing his food, he went back to his apartment to dress more appropriately, and then requested a carriage for the trip to the house of the senator. It was his best shot at finding the man. Perhaps there was someone at the house who could at least take a message for the senator.

The ride to Zoroon went swiftly. Daniel stared out of the window without seeing much. He was trying to think his way out of the matter of the mysteriously disappearing young woman. As the carriage stopped, he saw a remarkably small house, for Zoroon standards. The reception house looked no bigger than a large broom closet. The house beyond it was made of a peculiar kind of pink stone and was surprisingly round everywhere. The whole place looked as if large pink eggs had been thrown in a heap.

Daniel walked up to the door of the reception house. In vain he tried to locate a bell or similar device. There just was the ever present copper plate. As there was little else he could do except for banging on the door, Daniel held his ring against the plaque and waited.

As he took in the environment, one of the areas rich of plants and trees, the door opened behind him. “Seigner?” a voice asked.

Daniel turned and saw a rather aged man. “Good morning, sir. My name is Daniel Zacharias. Is the senator in, by chance?”

“Indeed, he is. I assume you want to see the senator?” the man asked.

“Yes. If that is possible.”

The man nodded and opened the door. “If you would please wait here, sir, I will see if senator Dirrit ko Asac is available for you.” The servant turned and left Daniel inside the small chamber as he slipped away behind a richly decorated curtain.

The curtain was very red, Daniel saw. It was embroidered with many small symbols, round and square, of which the meaning was entirely lost on him. Minutes checked in and out. Daniel thought the servant had either forgotten him, or fallen asleep after disappearing behind the curtain. Therefore it was a slight shock for him when the man came into the chamber again.

“The senator will see you, sir.” The way the servant managed not to put any life or emotion in his voice was stunning.

Daniel followed him. Behind the curtain was only a very short transparent tunnel, they were through it in a few steps. That was good, as the looming pink spheres were not improving his peace of mind. They came into the house that had more or less straight walls. Everywhere he looked, Daniel saw things. Hanging on the wall, in small glass cabinets or standing on display tables. He moved carefully, with so many things everywhere. Many of them looked expensive.

The servant moved through the chaos with ease. He probably had seen the collection of things grow over the years. The man stopped in front of an oval door and knocked on it. Without waiting, he opened the door which gave entrance into a room that was oval, like the house.

Behind a large desk sat the senator, who looked up as Daniel came in. “Ah, my good Mr. Zacharias. Welcome to my home. What a surprise to see you.” The man got up and shook Daniel’s hand. The senator was dressed in what almost was a regular suit. No green robe this time. “Won’t you please sit down, sir,” the senator said as he gestured at a large and comfortable looking chair near the black desk.

Daniel noticed the gentle earth tones that the walls were painted in. On the walls he saw paintings and what could be another kind of pictures. Some were, what Daniel assumed, views of the planet. Some showed large eight-mast ships.

“So, Mr. Zacharias, with what can I help you? And may I offer you a refreshment, like tea, or some exquisite Dilurian wine?”

“Tea would be nice, senator. It is still a bit too early for wine for me,” Daniel replied.

The servant man quietly left the office after a nod from Sygra.

“The reason for my visit is the disappearance of the daughter of Seigner Dandra ko Galem. Her mother asked me if I could look into this.”

The senator leaned back in his chair, a pen between his thin fingers. “I see. Yes, this is a highly unpleasant thing that happened. Clelem and Ugidra told me in person, the day they found out that Rayko vanished.” A slow smile came on the man’s face. “You and she made the most handsome couple at the party, Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel wilfully ignored that remark. “Would you know of a reason why someone would want to take her?”

The senator folded his fingers in front of his lips for a moment. “I have been thinking about that as well, Mr. Zacharias, and so far I have come up with not much. There are people who do not like the success Clelem has with his ships, so that might be a reason.”

“Do you know if she herself had any enemies? Or friends who would play a joke like that?”

The senator got up and walked up to a painting on the wall. As he stared at it, the servant came in and brought tea and wine, and some snacks Daniel had seen before somewhere.

“Do you know who this is, Mr. Zacharias?” the senator asked Daniel without taking his eyes from the painting?

“No, sir. I don’t.” Daniel got up and stood next to the senator, to look at the painting. It showed the pale face of a woman, surrounded by shoulder-length brown hair that stood in spikes to all sides. The face was quite plain, almost boring, but the way the artist had captured her eyes… Daniel could not drag his eyes away from them.

“This, Mr. Daniel, is Nahmyo. At least, it is how I picture Nahmyo.”

Daniel searched his brain for the name and ended up empty handed. “Who is she, sir? I can’t say I have ever heard about her.”

The senator nodded. “That does not surprise me.” He locked the fingers of his hands behind his back. “Nahmyo is the woman who founded our religion. I should say, a religion.” The senator was silent for a moment.

Daniel was not certain what this had to do with his question.

“Rayko and I both follow this religion. This… philosophy I should call it, Mr. Zacharias. That creates a bond between people, as you may be aware of.”

Daniel was not the religious kind, but he had heard of things like that, so he sort of nodded and waited. As he stood so close to the senator, he decided that this man could not be the mysterious person in black. Simply because he was too tall.

“Rayko, Mr. Zacharias, does not have enemies. She and I have talked about enemies and friends very often, and she is one of the most gentle and kind people on the planet.”

“Hmm,” Daniel commented. He had seen a rather different side of the gentle and kind person. His shins had taken part in the experience once.

As if the senator had guessed his thoughts, he turned to Daniel. “And yes, there is a lot of fire in her also.”

Daniel was still looking at the eyes of the woman in the painting. They seemed to become larger, taking him in entirely. He reached out to push himself away from the wall and the image. The solid and cool wall allowed him to also divert his eyes.

“Nahmyo attracts your attention, Mr. Zacharias,” the senator smiled.

Daniel returned to his chair and blinked his eyes a few times. “It seems so, indeed, senator,” he replied as he reached for his tea and took a sip.

The senator sat down at the desk also and had a very satisfied expression on his face. “That is how it starts,” he added, without elaborating on what ‘it’ might be.

Daniel did not ask, as he was not here for religious education. Then it dawned on him that maybe by knowing more of this, he could get an advantage on Rayko’s vanishing act. “Can you tell me something about this… philosophy, senator? Maybe it helps me in finding the missing person.”

“Mr. Zacharias… Is it so hard for you to pronounce her name? It will not hurt you. Trust me.” The senator smiled.

Daniel felt caught.

“The litany of Nahmyo, as it is called, is very simple. Her entire approach to things was simple, you know. Nahmyo was against violence. She was in favour of honouring life and all that belongs to it. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but it is harder than it sounds, Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel waited for more, but there was nothing more. “That’s it?”

“Yes. That is the basic idea. To remind yourself of her values, all you do is repeat her litany once a day, in solitude. That is important, as then you can hear your words. Spoken words are powerful, Mr. Zacharias. And you speak the words when they are needed.”

“Oh. And… when are they needed?”

The senator smiled again. “The person who knows the litany also knows when it is needed.”

Great, Daniel thought to himself. This was not getting him anywhere but to the land of confusion.

Sygra got up. “Would you care to join me for a stroll in the garden, Mr. Zacharias?”

As they left the office, Daniel remarked that there were many objects of art everywhere.

The senator shrugged. “Yes, I have to admit to that. One tries to be strong, but there is always a weakness that takes advantage of a person. Art is my weakness. Especially the objects that are… very hard to come by.” He walked towards a door and asked: “And what is your weakness, Mr. Zacharias?”

“I don’t want people to-” Daniel was shocked to discover what he was about to say and closed his mouth, his cheeks colouring.

The senator, his hand on the doorknob, smiled. “Yes… it is hard to admit to a weakness. Once you do, though, it is easier to deal with it. Believe me. Oh, I hope you are not afraid of animals, Mr. Zacharias. My pet is outside. Are you safe with that?”

“I am sure I can manage, sir.”

“Very good,” said the senator, and opened the door.

42. Kitty cat

“My pet is a Kotrvayk, Mr. Zacharias. Do you know the kind? They are most impressive.” Sygra stepped outside. “I named her Kernak.”

Daniel was not prepared for the animal that was waiting for him. Impressive was a word he agreed on. Scary would do also.

On a small patio, just a few steps from the door, lay an animal the size of a lioness. It was covered in red hair, like a fox’s. Its head was large and round. As Sygra came in its view, the Kotrvayk got up and slowly walked over to him, giving Daniel a good look of its immense, Komodo-dragon like tail.

Sygra scratched the giant animal behind the ears. “Hello beautiful, have you been good so far?”

The low rumble that came from the animal sounded frightening, but Sygra did not seem to have a problem with it.

“Look here, this is a new friend,” Sygra said as if he was talking to a kitten, “this is Mr. Zacharias. If he comes here, that’s good, Kernak. Mr. Zacharias is a friend.”

Large yellow eyes took Daniel in. Then slowly Kernak walked over to him and gently nudged him with her big head. The gentle push conveyed an enormous strength.

“She seems to like you already, Mr. Zacharias. Feel free to play with her,” Sygra said, looking sincerely pleased.

Playing was a bit steep for Daniel, so far, but he did reach out and gently patted the large beast on the head. Kernak’s head reached up to his hip. As he stroked the massive head, he was surprised to see how calm the Kotrvayk was. Kernak closed her eyes and gave Daniel all the time to pet her. Her low rumbles were encouraging.

“Kernak likes you, Mr. Zacharias.” Sygra’s gentle voice pulled Daniel from the reverie of being friendly with such an immense animal.

“Can you tell?” Daniel asked, his hand still in the hairs of Kernak.

“Yes. That is easy. If a Kotrvayk likes someone it will release a special scent. It makes you feel good. It is easy to see that you feel good. She did that.”

Daniel stared at the red-haired animal and shook his head. “Miraculous.” To himself he grinned as he thought of the poodle that Malcolm had bought for his daughters. Little brother, you should see what kind of animal I am standing next to. She likes me, and not for breakfast.

“Shall we walk, Mr. Zacharias, or do you want to spend some more time with Kernak?” Sygra asked, not hurried at all.

Daniel tore himself loose from the Kotrvayk and joined the senator. Kernak calmly trotted along behind them.

“I believe, Mr. Zacharias, that you were about to mention something about your weaknesses,” the senator said with a smile.

Daniel became careful and attentive again. Why did this man bring this up now? “We all have them, as you said, sir, and some people tend to talk about them whereas others just want to keep their weaknesses to themselves.”

“Do you know, Mr. Zacharias, that this is a weakness in itself?”

Daniel tried to work that out but decided to attempt that later. First thing he was here for was the daughter of Clelem and Ugidra. “I am sure it is, sir, but I am not sure that finding out my weaknesses will help me to find… Rayko back.”

Sygra looked at him. “Very good. I am sure she would be delighted to hear you talk like this.”

Daniel seriously doubted that. He also was certain he’d never mention anything like weaknesses in her presence.

“It is one of the core values of the Litany of Nahmyo,” Sygra explained. “When you are in touch with your weaknesses, you can anticipate them, and protect them a lot better, or even dissolve them. Use them to your advantage too, at times. And you can be more in synchronisation with the planet itself then.”

Daniel nodded politely and looked around. He found that he was completely lost in what had appeared to be just a modest garden. Kernak had disappeared, as had his understanding of where the walk and the talk were going.

“You see, Mr. Zacharias,” the senator continued, “I have turned a weakness into a strength.”

“With your art collection?” Daniel tried.

“No, my dear friend. It is with drugs.”

Daniel almost stumbled over his feet upon hearing that. So it was true… “In what respect do you mean that, sir? I mean, this is quite a revelation. Do you… uhm… use drugs?”

Sygra laughed. “Oh no, Mr. Zacharias. Far from, far from, I vow to you. I have, unfortunately, a brother who’s weakness is drugs in that way. I am strongly opposed to them, and I have made it known that I will fight anything related to drugs because someone in my family is suffering from them. And suffering it is, Mr. Zacharias.” Sygra’s laughter disappeared as he said the words.

Daniel knew. “I have seen soldiers, good men, go down because of TSD, Rood, name them. I hate the stuff with a vengeance, sir.”

The senator nodded. “Make everyone know this. They will know you for it. And fear you for it.” Then, fully unexpected, Sygra reached out and heavily leaned on Daniel’s arm.

Daniel felt the man falter and grabbed him under the arm. “Sir, are you okay?”

It took Sygra a while before he could respond. “I must go back inside, if you would be so kind, Mr. Zacharias.” Leaning on Daniel, he made it back to the door. Kernak was lying near to it and watched interestedly as Daniel supported her boss into the house. Sygra lay down on a couch and seemed to pass out immediately. He looked the same way as when Daniel had seen him lying on the couch at Clelem’s, during the soirée.

Sygra’s servant seemed to sense what was going on, he came almost running and checked on his employer. “He will be fine, sir, thank you for assisting him inside. The senator suffers from a serious blood illness that at times makes him faint. Lying down will make him well again soon.”

Daniel looked at the thin man who lay there with eyes closed and lips slightly apart. Weaknesses, he thought. “I think I should leave now,” he said to the servant. “Please, would you thank the senator for his time and for introducing me to Kernak.”

The servant nodded. “I will, sir. And it is a good sign that the beastie likes you.”

“How do you know Kernak likes me?” Daniel asked. He was surprised by the certainty in the servant’s words.

The servant smiled. “If Kernak did not like you, sir, you would not have been strolling through the garden with the senator. Please allow me to show you out.”

-=-=-

Daniel sat in the carriage that was rolling towards Skarak. He was thinking about the remarkable visit that had ended so abruptly. A blood disease would make for a good cover if the man was using drugs. Perhaps Daniel had intruded on the man after he had taken something and had he witnessed- but no, that would be strange. And his talk about that religion. The Litany of Nahmyo. That sounded a bit simple also. Maybe it was a diversion of sorts. There were frauds in many religions.

The sign announcing that the carriage was now entering Skarak moved past the window of the carriage. Not long now, Daniel knew, before he’d be home. Lunch at the “Solid Rooster”, which was a good place, was already on his mind when suddenly the carriage stopped.

“What’s this?” he muttered. He had never been in a carriage that broke down. These things just didn’t do that. They’d at best stop for something that was blocking their path. Daniel opened the door, stepped out of the carriage and was hit in the back by something. Or someone.

Daniel staggered away from the carriage. A blow had not been what he had expected. Before he really heard it, he already reacted to a sound that happened behind him. The combat training he’d had worked. He dropped himself to the ground, rolled to the side and as he was on his back he kicked at whatever would be coming up on him. His shoes connected with the legs of a heavy-set man. The kick did not throw the man over, but got him out of balance long enough for Daniel to get up and prepare for the next attack.

The man charged at Daniel. In his hand was something that looked like a knife, and he was waving it in a very skilled way. He was fast. He slashed the sleeve of Daniel’s jacket and almost managed to slit part of his body too. Daniel got hold of the man’s arm and yanked it hard. His arms were longer than those of the attacker, so he had the advantage of reach.

The man with the knife stumbled. Daniel kicked at one of the passing ankles, something cracked and the man went down. The pointy rocks that were placed along the side of the road became fatal for the man… he fell face down on one of them and lay still.

“Oh crap,” Daniel said, watching the silent figure on the ground.

“Sir, are you unharmed?” Two gentlemen had jumped from their own carriage that had halted and had tried to come to Daniel’s assistance. That had proven not to be necessary.

“Yes, I am fine,” Daniel replied, looking at the sleeve. The knife had not even scraped his skin.

One of the other men took his hydger and was busy with it.

“He is informing the police,” the other man said. “We are your witnesses, sir, we saw that you were attacked by this person. Do you have any idea what this ambush was for?”

Daniel shook his head. He now looked at his carriage and saw a thick branch stick from between the spokes of one of the wheels. The reason why the carriage had stopped was obvious.

About a quarter of an hour later, two black and yellow carriages had arrived. Policemen assessed the situation, and a medical examiner was kneeling on the ground next to the body of the assailant. The pointy rock that the unfortunate man had landed on, and the ground around it, had turned red. A nasty smelly kind of red.

Daniel made his statement to the police, and the two other men added theirs to that. One of the officers held the knife in a hand. “Do you have serious enemies, sir?”

“I am not certain,” Daniel said.

“Well, it looks like it. This kind of knife,” the policeman said, “is usually carried by murderers. Do you see this little tube?” He pointed at what looked like a slit in the blade. “If you get stabbed with this knife, pressing a little switch will inject a lethal dose of poison into your body which goes through this tube.” The man showed Daniel where the switch was, conveniently located at the far end of the handle. It could be operated by the pinky.

“This is one of Dogom ko Tzuy’s men,” the medical examiner said, from his kneeling position. “You’d better be careful, sir, Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy is a powerful person. If he is indeed after you, then you are in trouble.”

Daniel wondered how the examiner knew the killer had been with Huajo. The medical examiner showed him a tattoo of a ship, with the word ‘Tzuy’ beneath it. “Do you think I should file charges against Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy?” he asked one of the police officers.

The man shook his head. “I would advise against that, sir. There is no evidence. You do not know on whose orders this man really acted. And he won’t tell us anymore.”

The policemen then asked for Daniel’s hydger identification, so they could get in touch in case they needed more information from him.

The two gentlemen who had witnessed the battle also presented their hydger information to one of the police officers. After waving away Daniel’s gratitude, they boarded their carriage and went on their way.

The medical examiner was done with what he could do out in the street. Together with one of the officers he packed the body in a large sheet and hoisted that into one of the police carriages.

The number of people who had stopped their carriages and were observing the proceedings had grown to such an amount that a proper traffic jam was starting on the road. Once once of the policemen had left with the medical examiner and the corpse, the other officer start directing the people to move on, while Daniel worked on removing the branch from the wheel of his carriage.

“Will you be alright sir?” the policeman asked.

“I think I’ll be fine, thank you.” Daniel got into his carriage.

“Sir,” the policeman said, leaning inside, “I do recommend that you do not take matters into your own hands. Someone has committed a serious crime against you. We do not want to come after you, the victim, for making the same mistake. I wish you a good day, sir.” The policeman touched his hat and stepped back as Daniel told the carriage to take him home. And this time for real.

43. Blood shed

At home, Daniel showered and put on different clothes. The fight and the encounter with the knife had left more marks than he had originally thought. He frowned at the sleeve of the jacket. That probably was damaged beyond repair, but he would take it to a tailor anyway. These people here were amazing with repairs.

Then he tried to decide what his next step would be. He was trying to locate a missing woman that hated him, who was the daughter of a man who hated him, and apparently now there also was a contract out on him, put out by someone who seemed to hate him with a vengeance. But that could not be Huajo. The man had been ever so friendly to Daniel when he visited Huajo in his house.

“And you’re the idiot who falls for friendly again,” Daniel commented to himself. “Don’t, stupid.” It was as if everyone on this planet who was even slightly important was working with hidden agendas. There was no honour in that, according to Daniel.

After going out to the tailor’s with his torn sleeve (“this is no problem, sir, it will be brand new”), Daniel tried to talk to Stroro and Darigyn. Darigyn answered, Stroro was nowhere to be found.

Darigyn was quite surprised about the call. “Daniel, how are you?”

Daniel told him what had happened during the carriage ride. His sailor friend was appalled about what he heard.

“And what are you going to do? Do you need some bone and muscle to make an impression on Dogom ko Tzuy?”

“I’m not sure. Not yet anyway. I have this wild idea though…” Daniel explained what he wanted to do.

“Oh. Yeah. I like that. I can get to Stroro, he near never has the hydger with him, but I probably know where he is.”

The men arranged when and where they’d meet. Daniel lay down on his bed after that, while Darigyn went out to locate Stroro.

-=-=-

Daniel was hardly recognisable. He wore original sailor’s clothes and a wool hat was pulled over his ears. With his hands in his pockets he walked towards the entrance of the harbour, slightly bent over to mask his height. Darigyn and Stroro were already there, leaning against the wall next to the gate and looking around at the business that was never ending.

“Hey, guys, I really appreciate you coming here on such short notice,” Daniel greeted them.

“That’s okay, Daniel. The new ship is not ready so there is not much for us to do,” Stroro grinned. “Having a little job like this on the side is always a nice change. Keeps us out of trouble.”

“Out of other trouble,” Daniel said with a wink.

“Ah, don’t worry. If we get caught we pretend to be drunk and lost,” Stroro said, with stars shining in his eyes and a hip flask showing from his pocket for a moment. “A swig of this each and we can fool anyone.” The three men laughed.

“Come, let’s go and see what we can find. If there’s anything to find,” Daniel said. Just to be on the safe side, he wanted to search some of Huajo’s ships. Maybe Rayko was on one of them.

“There is always something,” Stroro predicted as they walked through the small entrance gate and proceeded down the long part of the quay where the smaller boats were moored.

Daniel asked himself how much he wanted to tell the men. He knew he could trust them quite far, even with his life in circumstances, but the things he was facing now… that probably was not something to share. No. What they knew now was enough for this moment.

The three walked along the gigantic warehouses, watching out for the heavy carts with goods that could be rolling out of there. Then they went through a small alley to reach their destination: the area where some of the ships of Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy were. There were two of them in port at that moment, both relatively small four-masters.

The time they had picked was perfect. There was no one around. The large warehouses were silent and dark.

“Where do you want to start?” Stroro asked, eyeing the ships one after the other.

Daniel looked at them also. The ships looked entirely deserted. They picked one. Stroro and Darigyn strolled up to the gangway and made their way to the deck.

Daniel saw how they inspected the deck shortly, and looked out over the quay. The sailors waved shortly and started sauntering over the deck the way the guards would do, while Daniel quickly made his way on board. He knew they were breaking at least a handful of laws with this.

“Go do your search, Daniel. We’ll make noise if something happens up here.”

Daniel nodded and headed for the stairs to the below-deck cabins. It was open and deserted. He searched all the cabins quickly as far as they were unlocked. He knocked on the door of the few that were locked, asking if someone was in there. No sound had to mean nobody in; he was making enough sound in the corridor. As it was a small ship, there were only relatively few cabins he had to search, so he was on deck again quickly. “Nothing,” he said.

“The cargo bays are down there,” Darigyn pointed at a hatch. “Maybe she’s in there somewhere.”

“Great, thank you,” Daniel said. He opened the hatch and stumbled down the ladder that was there. It was dark down in the cargo bay. “Hello?” he said, not letting go of the ladder. He was certain he’d be lost after a few steps into the blackness. “Hello, is someone here? Make some noise if you can hear me.”

Daniel waited, holding his breath to catch even the weakest sound. There was nothing but the sound of the small waves lapping at the hull of the ship. This was not getting him anywhere, he knew, so he went up to the deck again.

Darigyn and Stroro looked at him as he reappeared. Their faces were hopeful, but that changed as they saw Daniel shake his head. “Damn. That sucks.”

The three left the ship and moved on to the other one where the search and watch routine was repeated. It was an exact copy of the previous one: also on this ship there was literally nobody. Rayko was not on board of either of the ships. Daniel, Stroro and Darigyn went onto the quay again, at least there they were not trespassing. They stared at the warehouses.

“Do you think…” Daniel asked.

Stroro looked around. “I think,” he confirmed. It took some walking around, but in the end he found a small window that broke easily and allowed them access to the building. But also the large building did not give any clues about Rayko. It looked like a lost cause.

“I get the feeling that Dogom ko Tzuy has nothing to do with this,” Daniel said as they sat on a few sacks after their extensive search. “That this all is just a confusing mix-up of events, and that the policeman was right.”

Stroro had handed his flask around. “Yeah, could be. Let’s get out of here then…”

They left the warehouse through the for now permanently open window. As they walked around the large building, at the back of it they noticed a tow of four small sheds. The trio stopped as one. “Hmmm…” Then they walked towards the sheds.

“The Seigner has some of those also,” Darigyn said, “to store tools in and stuff like that. Small stuff.”

The locks that were on the doors of the sheds did not present a lot of problems to Stroro. Daniel wondered if this man had been a burglar before he had taken to the sea. Stroro opened the lock on the first shed as if he had a key. Inside they found nothing but stacks of empty crates, discarded and forgotten rolls of rope, and lots of dust.

Stroro was already on the second lock while Daniel and Darigyn checked the crates. “Daniel… come here.”

The two quickly went to see Stroro. The sailor was looking at the inside of the second shed.

There were crates, neatly stacked. One had fallen down though, and its contents lay scattered over the dirty floor.

“Oh, shit,” Daniel whispered. He recognised the stuff. It was TSD, the Toxic Shit you Die of. He stepped into the shed, avoiding stepping on the drugs. He kneeled down and looked at it closer. “Yes, drugs,” he confirmed, as if the other two had not recognised it as well.

“Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy is going to be in a lot of trouble,” Darigyn said. “I had not expected this of him.”

Daniel scanned the floor and something caught his eye. There was something… he leaned over and pushed a basket to the side…

There was a shoe. And a piece of cloth that looked like a improvised and discarded bandage. Daniel picked up both things, got up and walked out of the shed, the two sailors right behind him.

“What you got there, Daniel?” Stroro asked.

“Boys,” Daniel said, “I don’t want to say what I am thinking… but this could be a shoe of the Seigner’s daughter.” He was not certain. The rag he had in his other hand made him worry. It was not just a bandage: it was a piece of cloth that was stiff with dried up blood. And there was a lot of it.

The two sailors looked at Daniel. “That looks bad, Daniel. Really bad. Do you think the blood is from the girl also?”

“I don’t know. I hope not. But this is…” Daniel turned and walked into the shed again. Behind the basket and the crates he found a small sack, partly filled with straw. Someone had been lying on that. And there were traces of blood on that too.

This could be a coincidence, Daniel told himself. It could be. His brain screamed at him that he should not pretend to be such an idiot. And still it could be a coincidence. Idiot!

“Stroro… can you close the locks so it looks that nobody was here?”

The sailor nodded and a few minutes the locks were back in place. Daniel stood with the shoe and the bloody bandage still in his hands as the man finished his handiwork.

“Do you want to have a look at the other sheds also, Daniel?” Stroro asked.

“Yes. Since we’re here, we might as well do that.”

The other two sheds brought nothing shocking to the light that streamed in through the open doors. They contained lots of old stuff, ropes, crates and broken tools. Daniel found a bag in one of the sheds, he took that to put the shoe and the blooded rag in it. That way they would not cause much suspicion as he was going through the streets. The locks were put back and then the three people went back to the street, leaving the harbour behind them.

“So what are you going to do now, Daniel?” Darigyn asked.

“I am thinking of a visit to Dogom ko Tzuy. And taking this stuff with me. I am curious what he will say when he sees this. And I want to find out if this shoe is one of Rayko’s, but I am not sure if asking someone of her family is the proper way to do that.”

“Good luck finding someone else for that,” Stroro remarked, touching the sore spot Daniel was so aware of.

44. An unexpected encounter

The sailors had left for their homes. They had thanked Daniel for an entertaining afternoon. Daniel, the sack in his hand, was walking towards his apartment. Thoughts and memories haunted him as he was on his way. Some of them were so bad that they made him shiver; he wanted to shake them away.

After reaching his apartment, he placed the sack in a closet. The things inside it were the first tangible objects that might provide a clue about Rayko’s fate, and the blood was not a good omen. He also was not sure if going to Huajo was the best plan. Perhaps he should contact the police about this. Or Warlem and his mother.

Daniel took a quick shower, then he dressed for supper and left his apartment again. Perhaps being away from the sack would help him get his thoughts under control and his plan in some kind of perspective. As he walked along the street he grinned at himself in self-mockery. What plan are you thinking of, Daniel Zacharias?

As he was sitting at his meal, he had the hydger near him on the table. He secretly hoped that someone would contact him and hand him some more ideas. Some more pointers he could follow. The device however remained silent. Daniel was so occupied with his thoughts that he hardly tasted what he was eating, and before he really knew it he was walking the streets again, with no real aim. He just had to move, hear the noise of people talking, get away from it all for a while.

As he was walking down one of the streets, he thought he saw a glimpse of Melia, the music teacher. He wasn’t sure if it was her, and she apparently did not see him. He stopped for only a moment, then walked on. His head and feelings were all in a jumble.

“Daniel?”

Hearing his name nailed him to the ground. This could not be true. Slowly he turned around and he saw her stand. It was indeed Melia. She had gotten off her chair, her hand touching her lips as she looked over at him. He felt like a fool as he just stood there. He smiled. “Hello, Melia.”

The woman walked over to him, slowly, as if she was still doubting if she was doing the right thing. “I hope you do not mind addressing you like that, here in the street, Daniel. I just happened to see you and…” There was a blush on her cheeks all of a sudden.

“That is very much okay, Melia, really. I am glad you called my name.” As he said it, he could kick himself. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Oh. I am glad about that then.” Melia smiled, her blush deepening. “You are alone, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“So I see. That is…”

Daniel could almost hear her think the word ‘good’. Or was that wishful thinking?

“Would you…” Melia hesitated as she looked over at the table where she had been sitting. “Would you perhaps like to join us?”

“Only if I am not inconveniencing you, Melia. I’m afraid that I left a rather poor impression on you, the last time we saw each other.”

“You are not inconveniencing me, Daniel, nor will my friends feel that way.” Melia slowly put her arm through his. She was not sure of how he would react, but as he did not pull away, she held on to him and they walked over to the table.

Melia introduced Daniel to her friends, a young lady called Ophy Dill ko Zerba, and a young gentleman called Wenston Drossle ko Maire. They were still having supper, but they did not mind at all that Daniel joined them.

“Daniel Zacharias…” Wenston seemed to sample the name. “I have heard your name. Aren’t you the person who built the flying ship to rescue sailors from the pirates?”

Daniel grinned. “I did not build the airship. That was done by someone else. I was part of the rescue group, though.”

This of course triggered the others to ask everything about it, so Daniel told them most of the things, leaving out the bits that were too gruesome. The bits he would rather forget but couldn’t.

After the three people had finished their dinner, Wenston invited them to a nice and quiet place he and Ophy knew and visited once in a while.

Melia and Daniel, arm in arm, followed Ophy and Wenston through the streets that had gotten even more busy. The evening was a nice one, and it had lured just about everyone outside.

“I have missed you, Daniel,” Melia confided to him. “I was not pleased with the way we… said goodbye that day.” She looked up at him. Her green eyes had a special translucent shine in the light of the street lamps.

Daniel smiled at Melia. “I wasn’t particularly happy about how things went that day either, Melia. I missed you too.”

“As if you had time for that,” Melia said with a wicked smile. “You lead such an interesting and dangerous life. I am not sure if I am grateful to know what you did, what happened to you on that horrible flying ship. You must have been afraid there.”

“That I was. We all were afraid many a time,” Daniel admitted, just before Wenston held open the door to his favourite club.

“Do just step in, Melia and Daniel, and follow Ophy.” He followed behind them.

Ophy, very much at ease, strolled through the club. It was quiet inside, which was no surprise considering the nice outside. The woman led on, towards the back of the club where she opened a door. They reached a pretty garden, lights everywhere, and a lot of chairs and benches with thick cushions.

Ophy and Wenston sat down in one of the two-seaters and they both giggled.

Daniel wondered what that had to mean. Melia gently tugged his hand and they sat in another two-person seat. It was almost too narrow for two people to sit in, Daniel’s only option to sit comfortable was putting one arm over the backrest, almost over Melia’s shoulders.

Melia sighed. “It is nice here.” She looked up to the sky where some stars were visible. Her head rested on Daniel’s arm for more than just a few moments, then she looked at him. “I hope that was not inconvenient, Daniel.”

Before he could reply, a waiter came outside with cards and handed them to both couples. As Daniel and Melia were studying their card, Melia gently reached over her shoulder and pulled Daniel’s hand on it. He smiled as he noticed her do it, ever so gently. Daniel also saw how Ophy and Wenston were quietly talking among themselves, not paying any attention to the card.

“Oh,” Melia dragged him from his personal musings, “they have that special Vernian wine here.”

“They have many special things here, Melia,” Ophy said with a big smile. There was something about the way she said it that made Daniel wonder for a moment, but Melia again drew his attention away from the girl.

“Would you like to try a glass of Vernian wine with me, Daniel? I have heard that it is magnificent, and tonight would be such a special time to try it.” She put her hand on his hand. “With you,” she whispered, so the other two could not hear her.

Daniel beckoned the waiter and ordered two glasses of Vernian wine. Melia looked at Daniel as if he was some deity personified.

Before the waiter got their glasses, he also took Wenston’s order and then went inside, to return from there very quickly. On a small table in front of them, he placed two glasses. They looked like champagne glasses, long and thin. Their contents however had nothing to do with champagne. It seemed to light up from inside its orange colour, and there seemed to be small blue and pink bubbles floating in the wine.

Daniel lifted his arm from Melia’s shoulders. He took one glass and handed that to the pretty woman next to him. “A glass of wine for a very beautiful lady.” In the light of the torches and lamps he could not miss her blush. He took his own glass and carefully touched hers with it. The sound the glasses made was as from the finest crystal.

Melia’s eyes were magnets to Daniel’s as they both raised their glasses and carefully sampled the Vernian wine.

Daniel had never tasted anything like it. He tried to describe the experience to himself, but he simply lacked the words for it. He felt how his free hand slipped into Melia’s, their eyes unable to break the gaze.

Melia’s eyes were shining as she slowly lowered the glass. Her lips, dark red, glistened from the thick wine. Somehow she got hold of Daniel’s index finger and lifted that to her lips. She gently brushed his finger over them and then slowly licked the wine from his fingertip. Only then she seemed to grasp what she was going and turned red again. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, quickly peeking over to Wenston and Ophy.

The two others had seen nothing, or at least did not show they had. They looked fully enveloped in each other.

“I am not,” said Daniel, “and you are even prettier when you blush.” The cling sounded again as he touched her glass with his. As they sipped from the wine again, the amazing experience happened again, as if something more than just the wine took possession of his senses. He was almost certain that Melia underwent the same experience.

She shivered.

“Are you cold?” Daniel asked.

She shook no as she put the glass down. “No… It is just so… overwhelming.”

Daniel put down his glass and touched her lips with his finger again. And she licked it, as she had done before. But now she did not blush.

“I had not expected to see you again,” she then said, holding his hand. “When I saw you this evening, Daniel, I hesitated. Maybe you would not want to see me anymore, and I didn’t know…”

“I saw you too, Melia. And I was afraid of addressing you, I have to admit. I also was not sure if it was really you. Your hair is different, and your dress.”

“You noticed…” She smiled. “Do you like it?”

“Yes. I do. And to be frank, Melia, so far I have not found anything about you that I don’t like.”

“Please, Daniel, always be frank with me.”

Something in her eyes, or maybe it was something in her voice, made Daniel slowly lean over to her, and when their lips met, she closed her eyes. The kiss lasted for a long time. When it finally broke, Melia’s eyes seemed like stars when she opened them.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Daniel, I…”

“Sssst…” Daniel whispered. “Not now. A few more minutes…”

Melia nodded.

They both picked up their glasses again and toasted to each other. In silence they enjoyed the wine and the feeling of being together again, in the small garden.

Only when they had finished their wine, they noticed that Ophy and Wenston were asleep in their seat. Wenston sat up sort of straight, his head hanging back. Ophy lay curled up on the seat, half in his lap.

Daniel tried to wonder about that. It looked as if all they’d had was a glass of water, so that did not make sense. The Vernian wine however was not only thick in the glass, it also made thinking thick. He was failing gloriously in getting thoughts to connect.

“Daniel…” Melia touched his hand. “I have to say something…” She was talking as slowly as Daniel felt in his head.

“What do you have to say something, dear Melia?” He had the feeling there was something odd in what he said, but couldn’t capture it.

“It is about you and me. And you,” Melia said, doing her utmost to keep making sense.

“Ah. About us,” Daniel understood.

“Yes,” Melia agreed, “about us. Or about not us, actually.” Melia took both Daniel’s hands. “You see, I like you very much, Daniel. But you told me about your life this night. Evening.” For a moment she seemed to focus, as if that would improve her speech. “Yes. And I really, really want to love you, Daniel, but your life is so dangerous. You go and you… go… and… you do dangerous things. Like pirates. Fighting.” Slowly she nodded. The wine was making this hard, but also easier. “And I can’t live in that fear, Daniel. I want a man to… to… come home every day. Without being scared of pirates and fighting. You see?”

Daniel thought hard. What she said seemed to make sense, and yet… “I think I see,” he said before his mind had made itself up.

“Good. I am glad you understand. I’m not sure if I do,” the pretty woman said. “I want to… uhm… oh— I want you to know that this was a wonderful evening, Daniel. I also think that I am not very sober anymore.”

Daniel felt the same. “Yes, Melia. This was a magnificent evening.” His mouth had some trouble with ‘magnificent’ but he managed it. “I am glad you are so honest and upright. I also enjoyed the kiss very much.” He nodded for a while. All that talking spread the cotton in his head like nothing else could, it seemed. “Maybe I should see you to a carriage and make sure you get home safely, Melia.”

They both agreed and got to their feet. They were grateful for the support of each other as they shuffled past the chair where Ophy and Wenston were still sleeping.

Daniel saw something on their table he could not interpret. He reached down, grabbed it, crumpled it up and stuffed it in his pocket, after which he and Melia left the establishment…

-=-=-

The next morning Daniel desperately needed a shower and something against a hangover. He slowly recalled the previous night. Somehow he remembered that he had kissed Melia one more time before she had left in a carriage. He had needed another carriage to get home. His feet refused to take him anywhere, apart from the last few stretches to the apartment and his bed.

After the shower, he dressed and headed out to a restaurant. A good breakfast chased the ghost from his head. He was about to leave when he found something in his pocket. It was a scrap of paper with a print of a ship on it. As he unfolded it, a small something fell out of it. Daniel picked it up from the floor and looked at it. “Oh crap…”

Daniel went back home and from there to the house of Huajo Dogom ko Tzuy. He had to know if the man was tied to Rayko’s disappearing, and what he was doing in the drug scene. Daniel had a few small weapons with him. The attack of the previous day had shaken him up enough to choose for that. He didn’t like carrying arms around people, but this situation called for drastic measures. As he was on the way, bits and parts from the last night came and went, until the carriage came to a stop.

Daniel recognised the house of the ship owner. He left the carriage and walked up to the reception house. After holding his ring against the metal plate, he waited. To his surprise the door was answered rather quickly.

“Sir?” a servant asked. Daniel had never seen this person before.

“My name is Daniel Zacharias, and I would like a word with Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy.”

“If you would care to wait here,” the servant nodded, allowing Daniel to step inside, “I will go and see if the Seigner has time for you.”

He’d better, Daniel thought. He was going to talk to this man, time or no time. But he understood that using the official way was better than to storm in there like a mad bull. Unless the official way got him nowhere.

After a few minutes the servant returned. “The Seigner can see you, Mr. Zacharias.”

45. Investigations

The servant guided Daniel through the tube and into the main house. Huajo was behind the desk in his conservatory again.

“Mr. Zacharias, what an unexpected surprise,” the fat man said. “Tea please, for Mr. Zacharias.”

“No, thank you,” Daniel said, “I might not stay here that long.”

Huajo looked at the visitor. “This sounds somewhat alarming, or pressed for time at least, sir. How can I help you?”

“Last time I was here, Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy,” Daniel said, “I told you about Rayko Dandra ko Galem. That she went missing. Yesterday someone tried to murder me.”

“Oh…” Huajo looked genuinely surprised. “That is very bad news. Are you unharmed, sir?”

“I am, yes.”

“And, if I may ask of you, why does this attempt on your life bring you to me?” The man either knew absolutely nothing, or he was a perfect actor.

“The man who tried to kill me, Seigner, had a tattoo on his arm. It was a ship, and beneath it was written ‘Tzuy’.” Daniel threw the words at the man, who actually leaned back a bit.

“I am truly sorry, Mr. Zacharias,” Huajo said, “but I am confident that people who sail on my ships are not the kind that go around killing people as they please.”

“Perhaps not as they please, Seigner,” said Daniel as he leaned on the desk, looming over the man. “But perhaps as someone else pleases.”

“Sir, I beg of you… are you implying that I would have my hand in some filthy business? I am strongly opposed to matters like that, I hope you can believe this, Mr. Zacharias.”

Daniel got up and reached into his pocket. “Maybe this means something to you. Seigner…” He unfolded a piece of paper on the man’s desk. On it was the print of a ship. And the word ‘Tzuy’. Then Daniel slowly put a broken glass capsule on the paper. “In this capsule, in case you don’t know, were drugs. Drugs served on a paper with the name of your ships.”

Huajo stared at the paper and the capsule as if they were about to bite him. “What is this, Mr. Zacharias? Where did you get this?”

“So you know what this is?” Daniel asked.

“It is some scrap of paper from an insolent who uses the mark and name of my ships. And what is this glass thing, I would like to know.” Huajo picked it up carefully and examined it.

Daniel’s initial feeling of victory dwindled a bit. The man behind the desk seemed really not aware of what the broken vial had contained. “Don’t tell me, Seigner, that you have never seen a vial that contained liquid drugs.”

Huajo almost dropped the vial. “Drugs? Are you meddling with drugs, Mr. Zacharias? I must say I am shocked!”

“I am not. You are,” Daniel said, although he was less convinced now.

“Sir, I try to remember you are not from our planet, so I shall take that as a reason for this. You are deeply offending me, Mr. Zacharias. The house of Dogomo ko Tzuy is not dealing with drugs and other substances of that kind. I am sorry to admit that there are rumours of other ship owner’s houses that deal in that shady area, but my house is not one of them.” Huajo put the vial on his desk and got up. “You should believe me, Mr. Zacharias. If you do, you are welcome to stay. If you do not, I must ask you to leave.”

Daniel wasn’t sure, but he decided that this all was circumstantial evidence.

“You are not too well versed in our language, Mr. Zacharias,” Huajo said. “The word Tzuy means ‘going to the sea’. My great-grandfather added that to our name long ago, as we have always been ship owners. Tzuy is therefore a common word in any town that has a harbour, as you probably understand.”

Daniel nodded. “I can see reason in that, sir. But there still is the attack. And the tattoo on the arm of the man who did that clearly showed one of your ships. The design is unmistakable, and under that also was the name Tzuy. That is hardly a coincidence.”

“Allow me a moment, Mr. Zacharias.” Huajo took a hydger from the desk and called someone. Daniel noticed that the device was the size of his own. Huajo’s stubby fingers would have a problem handling anything smaller.

“My administrator for personnel will be here in a short while, Mr. Zacharias,” Huajo said as he sat down again. “If you could wait, and please have a seat… If you can describe the man who attacked you, I am sure my administrator will be able to identify the man.”

Daniel calmed down slightly and sat in the chair behind him. Huajo called for some tea, which was accompanied by pieces of fresh fruit pie. The situation was very awkward, but Huajo did not seem to have a big problem with it: he chatted about business things, commented on the weather and ideas for a new boat he was working on. That made time pass quickly.

“Seigner,” a servant announced, “Mr. Confrey is here.”

“Ah, good, show him in, show him in.”

Mr. Confrey was an average sized man. He had blond hair, blue eyes and a very calm disposition. He also had a big bag with him which contained loads and loads of papers. Files on everyone who was working for his employer, or who had worked for him.

Daniel was asked to describe the man who had attacked him. That proved to be hard work, as the man had not struck him as a particular person. Also, during the fight, Daniel had not taken much time to admire his looks. It helped that all the faces of all the sailors had been sketched on their ‘personnel file’. After wading through papers for about an hour, Mr. Confrey held one sheet of paper in his hand.

“This is, or rather was Daro Jinkel. He joined the company eight years ago and left two years ago. The captains of the Tzuy Two and Tzuy Five that Jinkel has worked on both complained about his lack of respect towards them and the other crew,” Mr. Confrey read out loud.

Daniel read the page also. There was no denying it: the man who had attacked him was no employee of Huajo’s firm anymore. Mr. Confrey could not have tampered with this paper, he was certain, as the other papers all were made the same way.

Mr. Confrey got his papers together, put them in the bag and bid them a good day.

“Seigner Dogom ko Tzuy,” Daniel said as they were alone again. “Thank you for your patience. There is one more thing I have to ask you.”

“Please ask, Mr. Zacharias.”

“Where is Rayko Dandra ko Galem?”

Huajo looked surprised. “Wasn’t it your job to find that out? Why do you ask me?”

“I have done some investigating, Seigner. And I have a strong reason to believe you are involved in her disappearing. I have found evidence that she was held prisoner in one of the sheds behind your warehouses.”

Huajo grew pale. “What do you say, sir? I am not sure what sheds you mean, but… this is a serious allegation.”

“Kidnapping, sir, is a serious crime,” Daniel retorted. “As is having crates with what could be drugs in the same sheds.”

“I agree. And I want this all resolved as much as you do, Mr. Zacharias. Would you please show me these sheds?”

An hour later, Daniel and Huajo were at the sheds. Huajo himself had called for two policemen and a few of his own people. One of the men was opening the lock on the second shed. Huajo looked at Daniel, wonder on his face, but holding back the evident question.

The inside of the shed had not been touched. Whoever it was that had kept Rayko there, had not seen the need to do anything about it. The policemen agreed that the substances and pills on the floor looked suspiciously like drugs. As Daniel pointed out the sack, with the imprint of a body still on it, the two police officers got to work and discovered a few ropes that had blood on them as well.

Things were not looking well. Huajo claimed he knew nothing of this all. Daniel watched the man from a bit of a distance and somehow he concluded for himself that Huajo was indeed innocent of what had been going on here.

“It is clear that someone has been held here, against their will,” one of the officers said. “It is not possible to tell who, of course.”

Daniel thought of the evidence he had in his apartment and considered bringing that up, but for some reason he did not fully understand he held it back, knowing he would be obstructing the proceedings. He could do that afterwards. First he needed these things for something else.

The next step was an overwhelming amount of paperwork that had to be dealt with at the police station. Daniel almost felt sorry for bringing up the whole thing. Now he was suffering this as much as Huajo was. Most difficult was the part where he had to invent something when the police officer asked him how he had found out about the shed.

Finally they were free to leave again. Once outside the police station, Huajo turned to Daniel. “Mr. Zacharias… at first your visit appeared very aggressive and hostile. But I must say that I am now very grateful that you came to my house and brought this whole affair to my attention. I will alert some of the people who work for me and do a thorough investigation on what may have happened in that shed. I hope, really, that it was not little Rayko who has been kept there. It is not a place for such a fine lady.” The big man shook his head.

“I must admit, Seigner, that this all turned out rather differently than what I had expected. But something good seems to come from it. I hope you do not feel offended by my rude behaviour earlier.” Daniel offered his hand.

Huajo shook it. “Not at all sir. Not anymore, I should say. And if you feel the need to see me, do call again. You know how to reach me.”

Daniel waited until the man and his people had left in the carriage they had summoned. Then he took his hydger and looked for the identification to call Warlem. Suddenly an idea grabbed him and he found the small black triangle. He called it. There was no response. It did not surprise him. He called Warlem, told the young man he had something to show him and they arranged a time to meet.

After a trip home and a quick bite to eat, Daniel called for a carriage to take him to Maliser Park, the same place where the cloaked figure had stunned him. Warlem had asked him for a good place to meet, and this park was the first thing that had come to mind.

Daniel had found a bench that gave him a good overview of the park. He’d come early, to make sure things were ‘normal’. As far as normal would go lately, anyway.

Warlem leisurely strolled through the entrance, looked around and saw Daniel. He walked over and sat down. “Hello, Daniel. I’ve been worried since you contacted me.” He eyed the strange, rough sack that Daniel did not take his hand off.

“I hope I am wrong, Warlem. I really do. Please brace yourself. This is not going to be a pretty sight.” Daniel observed the poetic young man, whose pale face seemed to become even whiter.

“Let’s get this behind us, my friend,” Warlem said. He got hold of the bench and kept holding it as if he could fall off at any moment.

Daniel nodded and reached into the bag. “I am going to show you a shoe, Warlem. Maybe you know it. Maybe not. Just so you know.”

Warlem nodded and watched Daniel pull something from the sack. As he saw the shoe, his eyes almost popped out of his head. “Oh no…” Immediately sweat appeared on the man’s brow, which told Daniel enough.

“It’s one of Rayko’s, right?”

Warlem nodded. “Is she…” He could not finish his question.

“This is just her shoe, Warlem. I don’t know how she is. Or where. As far as I know, she is still alive. I have another thing here. Maybe you recognise that also.” He pulled the bloody rag from the sack.

“What’s that?” Warlem asked. “I’ve never seen that before, Daniel.” He stared for a moment. “What is that reddish colour?” Awareness seemed to kick in right after asking it. “It’s blood, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is blood.” Daniel put the rag away again. It was obvious that this was too much for Warlem, who was already depositing his lunch next to his shoes.

“I do apologise, Daniel,” said Warlem as he was able to speak again. He tossed his now thoroughly soiled handkerchief in a basket next to the bench. “I was not prepared for this.”

“I understand, Warlem.” Daniel was certain that there was no way Warlem could have been prepared for this. The man just had no stomach for such things.