Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash
Honey yellow aurora tendrils drifted out from the gravitar and lashed lazily across the pale sky. It was relative dark on this side of the tiny, impossible star. Relative dark would still blind a sailor who stared too long. But the mind played tricks on you out in the Asterveb – compared to the cluster of brighter gravitars behind it, it appeared to be shadow. Or a pale imitation of shadow as it glowed with dark amber.
The academics say these tricks are the way a mind wraps itself around the impossibilities it confronts. They say people were never meant to live in the atmosphere between these cosmic, pulsing bodies. But Krimsen Yon found it just fine.
He hung as he always did, from the lower rail of the starboard deck of the Altcloud. The bronze, tri-deck ship he called home. He let himself swing from his harness as the winds rifled through his long hair and cooled his skin. He squinted into the bright dark, searching for an unassuming rock that should be drifting through the magnetic light show any minute now.
“There.” He pulled himself up over the railing and scrambled for the central deck. “Northern hemisphere, Captain Ta. It’s just orbiting through the aurora now.”
“Good lad.” Catpain Ta glanced up at the young sailor from his orbital mechanical map and smirked. “I seemed to have jarred my hand pulling those manoeuvres when we escaped the Green Sting… care to take us in, Master Yon?”
Krimsen lit up, “Really?”
Ta laughed as he stepped away from the helm and gestured to for Krimsen to take over. “It would be a pleasure to let someone with gumption fly this thing for a change!” He eyed the helmswoman who was snoozing by the balustrade. “Or at least someone who was AWAKE! Wake you cur!” The Captain marched over and kicked the helmswoman awake and began issuing orders to the crew who scrambled to comply.
Krimsen’s awareness of the Captain’s orders dwindled as he took the spokes of the wheel in his hands. He gripped them firmly, feeling the ship respond to his commands as the keel and swivelling masts braced against the wind.
The Altcloud drifted delicately to starboard at his leisure, then to port, and then vertically up towards the small planetoid.
“Ah, he’s got the hang of it. Good lad!” Ta clapped Krimsen across the back, “The crew awaits your orders, Master Yon.”
Krimsen’s heart raced with nervous glee and his brow furrowed slightly with concentration as he sighted the port planetoid. It was an uneven rock the size of a small town, riddled with canyons and crude structures. A mixture of jetties, net sails and landing troughs lined the corner on the far side of the little world – far side from the Gravitar and the Altcloud. The manoeuvre to dock would need just a smidgen more gravitational drift than the planetoid’s size could muster… from this angle.
He raised an eyebrow at the Captain, “An easy approach for my first time, Sir?”
“We shall see.” Ta beamed. “Or we’ll overshoot and be adrift for another orbit until I can land us properly! Hah!”
“Bet you a bottle of rum!” Krimsen spun the wheel and the ship listed as he steered it for the gap between the planetoid and the gravitar. “Port deck, prepare to collapse sails on my mark!”
“What about the starboard side?” The helmswoman inquired. “You’re steering us the wrong way, we need to come at them from the outer side!”
“I know what I’m doing.” Krimsen snapped back.
“They’re already signalling us to adjust course.” The helmswoman fretted as she sighted red strobes from the light house on the planetoid’s surface.
“I KNOW what I’m DOING!” Krimsen roared again. “And so does the Captain. Just be ready.”
“Cap’n?” The Helmswoman eyed Captain Ta who was securing his harness.
“We’re gonna pull more G’s than usual sailor, make sure everyone is secure. HAH!”
The Helmswoman’s eyes widened as she understood and he relayed the order throughout the crew.
The Altcloud picked up speed as it caught the sweet spot in the gravity wells between each celestial body and it tore through the empty sky, through the lashing magnetic lines.
“CLOSE PORT SAILS!” Krimsen ordered.
The crew snapped the sails closed, like an insect closing a single wing. The sudden disparity of drag on the ship caused it to stall and drift to starboard around the planetoid. The dock came into view around the curvature of the small rocky body, but they were coming in the wrong way to land.
“We’re done for!” The helmswoman cried.
“Starboard grapples!” Krimsen ordered.
The crew on the starboard deck fired their grapples at the net sails that flittered from the jetties and the Altcloud’s starboard drag intensified. It swung around the dock itself as the crew held on for dear life, screaming or cheering – it made no difference to Krimsen.
“Collapse starboard sails, open port sails!” Krimsen ordered urgently.
The starboard sails snapped closed as the port sails snapped open. The drag factor flipped on the Altcloud and its starboard drift slowed as it swung around the dock and aligned for a straight run to land. Krimsen steered the ship gently so that the keel slid into the landing trough as the crew members fired more grapples into the netting to haul them the rest of the way.
Dock workers helped secure the ship to the jetties, shouting jeers and cheers alike at the Altcloud’s manoeuvre.
“Oh turb, I believe I have a few more grey hairs after that little manoeuvre.” Ta laughed. “Helmswoman, make sure my silk gets delivered – for a good price, and pick up this consignment of sugar for the next haul.” He handed the helmswoman a manifest. “CREW, ONE ORBIT’S LEAVE!” He clapped Krimsen over the back again. “That was damn fine sailing son, finest rookie helmsman in all the Asterveb, HAH!”
“And what will you be doing in Port, Captain Ta?” Krimsen asked as he settled his nerves.
“Oh, I have business to attend to. Make sure the crew has work, see?” His hand drifted over his sash pouch absentmindedly, Krimsen noticed. “You go enjoy yourself lad, get drunk, find a girl, or boy, have some fun.”
“I’ll be sure too, Captain.”
Ta smiled, twisting his greying beard with one hand and squeezing Krimsen’s shoulder with the other, “Good lad.”
As Krimsen disembarked with the other crew, most on their way into the innards of the planetoid where they would find booze and brothels, he noticed the Captain slink off into a secluded metal tunnel which sprouted steam from the port’s water system.
Krimsen narrowed his eyes. He knew the Captain was secretive about things, he also knows that the Green Sting did not just attack them the other week out of chance. The Captain had been skittish… it was time to find out why.
Krimsen steeled himself and snuck down the quiet tunnel, exiting the perma-day of the Asterveb and delving into the near-night of the underground. The planetoid was cracked all the way through, held together by dual functioning structures and haphazard riveting. This allowed the amber light from the gravitar to streak down into the oil lamp lit underbelly. It seemed hellish, lighting the steam in cracked, fiery patterns.
The underbelly quickly became a hubbub of activity, fortune tellers and slum folk and quieter bars that did not attract the likes of the sailors who passed by this port. They were kept deliberately dank, these holes in the wall, gave the locale a quiet place to enjoy a meal or drink without a contact starved sailor getting belligerent.
It also made it an ideal area to do business, and not always the moral kind… What business did Captain Ta have in these parts?
Krimsen followed him into a dinky diner and he took a seat in a booth near where he met with some rather unscrupulous looking characters.
He missed names and pleasantries as the waiter took an order from Krimsen. Which was fine, Krimsen was more concerned with the ‘what’ right now rather than the ‘who’.
“Word has it your drifted in here like a hoon in a spec’d out dingy.” The man who’s face was shrouded in shadow in the dark corner said. “Mid life crisis, Nobe?”
“I was training a promising sailor up.” Ta responded. “His wits helped me escape Lililla out by the Blue Abyssal Arm the other day.”
“Promising indeed.” The second person said, an older woman who hunched over the table as if kept her from falling through the floor. “Will you clue him in on our little quest?”
“That remains to be seen. He is loyal yes… But I am unsure how committed he is to life out here. Picked him up a month ago, a ward of Bah Khan. He seemed eager to please and picks things up quickly.”
“We are getting distracted,” The man in shadows said, “You said you had something?”
“Yes, I found another cipher.” Ta reached for his sash and pulled out an aged cloth map.
“Ah,” The old woman took it greedily and studied it. “Hmmm, how did you come by this?”
“It was payment from Bah Khan for delivering his silk shipment and… driving off a band miscreants who didn’t like how he was leading the flotilla.”
“Did he know its value?” The old woman asked.
“Hmmmm,” she looked up, “This talks of a marker, adrift in the Rivers Sky Arm.” She made a marking the cipher. “This should make it easier for you to read.”
Ta stood, taking the cipher form the old woman. “Then that is where we shall go… What?”
“If Lililla is after you it means she is also on the trail for The Catalyst.” The man in shadows said.
“I’m aware of that.”
“If you get the chance, take her out. She will no longer interfere in my designs.”
“Yes my Lord.” Ta bowed and backed away, leaving the diner.
Krimsen hunched over his drink, pulling his hood down low until Ta passed him by. He risked a peek back at the mysterious figures, but they were already leaving through another door. He furrowed his brow, thinking.
“The Catalyst?” He mouthed to himself.
“Aye!” A fist slammed down on the table, jolting Krimsen from his deductions.
“Turbulence! Ta, what the hell?” Krimsen yelped.
“What the hell?” Ta glowered. “You followed me!”
“I was curious, that’s all! What’s a catalyst?”
Ta recoiled and glanced around, pulling Krimsen up by his collar. “Talk too loudly and we’ll never find out boy, come on!” He dragged him out of the diner and they made their way back to the Altcloud. “I wasn’t going to clue you in until I knew you could handle it, you just stumbled onto a wide, wide Asterveb young one.”
“So I can be involved?” Krimsen said hopefully.
Ta rounded on him, stopping him in his tracks. “Y-” A warning bell sounded.
“PIRATES PIRATES PIRATES!” A sentry yelled from somewhere up above.
“Turb!” Ta swore, looking up through the cracks, “She’s found us!” as he saw a green shape swoop over the planetoid.
The world rocked with explosions as the attackers strafed the surface with their cannons. Ta and Krimsen stumbled over as rubble and dust fell around them.
“Come on!” He picked Krimsen up from the ground as debris littered around them and the locals rushed this way and that in panic. “She would have dropped boarders if she’s after the cipher. We need to get out, back to the Altcloud!”
“What about the crew?” Krimsen roared over the panic and the bells.
“If they’re worth their rum ration then they’ll be ready to cast off by the time we get there!”
Another salvo from an unseen enemy, another shake that tore the fragile cracks in this tiny world apart, and an acorn like shell of iron burrowed down from the ceiling of the tunnel and embedded into the path between them.
Ta cried out in agony as his knee was caught by flying rubble and the shell opened out like a flower. A figure in green robes with red ribbons and a large hood stepped down one of the petals like a ramp, drawing a katana. A demon in the amber tinged steam.
“Captain Ta,” She bowed reverently, the voice was polite, yet sinister. “My Captain says you have something we need.”
“How the hell did you zero down on us?” Krimsen paled and stumbled back.
The hooded figure regarded Krimsen with a tilted head as she stepped between him and the Captain. “That pull you feel in your soul is the gravity of a mighty quest, boy. A quest you may not understand. And the forces that compete with you will also be beyond your comprehension.” She spun on Ta who was dragging himself down the tunnel. “She knows you have the cipher, give it up!”
“I have the cipher.” Krimsen said, backing down a fork in the tunnel. “Let my Captain go!”
With a blade flourish the Green Sting pirate looked back at Krimsen, Captain Ta behind her was wide eyed in shock as he felt around his sash in confusion.
“Get back to the Altcloud, Captain!” Krimsen shouted as he hopped and turned into a run, The pirate pursued him with her blade glimmering in the cracked light.
‘What the hell are you doing?!’ Krimsen wondered as he sprinted through the crowded tunnel. Diving though spice stalls and over small carts as he made his way further into the markets of the port. Another cry as the locals saw the pirate pursuing him and scrambled out of the way.
Krimsen saw a large cart ahead, abandoned in the middle of the tunnel. It was too tall to leap over and blocking the way. He grabbed an unlit lamp from one of the stalls as he ran by and lobbed it at the base of the cart. He sprinted, skidded as he hit the oil slick and slid under the cart at speed. His adrenaline spiked and his smile faded, as he emerged from the cart he found the pirate leaping over it to swipe down at him. She sliced a golden lock of hair from his head as it missed its mark by the barest centimetre.
“Give me the cipher boy!” She stamped down on his throat and put the blade up to his eyes.
“Actually.” He coughed, “I never had it.”
She hesitated, withdrawing her blade. “You… you aren’t lying aren’t you?”
“Nope.” The bravado was a show of course.
“Fool.” She drew her blade back to strike the death blow when another salvo hit the port and debris rained down around them.
In the chaos and confusion Krimsen knocked his attacker from him. He scrambled in a slapstick manner to stand in the oil slick and then and bolted up a ramped tunnel, hoping it would come out near the docks.
He soon ran into amber daylight and a world on fire. Pockets of pirates fought throughout the docks and the ships, trying to secure the Altcloud. They would have succeeded if not for the many bands of port guards and crews from other ships who thought this was a less targeted raid. They outnumbered the pirates, but were not as organised.
The enemy were quickly fighting their way towards the Altcloud. It was already starting to pull out though, the sails were expanding in their brilliant red which caught the light and Krimsen could spy the Captain limping towards the helm, scanning for… for him, Krimsen realised.
“Dock master!” Krimsen called to the elderly man hiding under a stall by the tunnel mouth. “Where is the enemy vessel?”
“It keeps making passes around the planetoid from a distance beyond our cannon range. But Imperial scouting vessels are coming!” He pointed a quivering hand towards the southern hemisphere of the gravitar where blue sailed frigates were making an arched path for the port. “The green devils caught us while they were doing an orbital sweep.”
“Those boats can’t defeat the Green Sting.” Krimsen thought aloud.
“No, but the pirates wouldn’t want to be engaged for long. Our Imperial navy patrol the area. Some scouts would have likely gone to warn them.”
“She’s coming back for another salvo!” A dock worker cried as the green shell galley orbited into view around the docks.
Its armoured shell was splayed back like a flower as it launched another broadside, this time towards the approaching Imperial ships. It’s shell was starting to close slowly, readying for a fight with something more formidable.
“Thank heavens for that!” The dock master whimpered.
Krimsen was distracted by a cry from behind him as the pirate emerged from the tunnel. She slashed down a guard who tried to apprehend her. She was dishevelled, her hood torn and fiery red hair burst out of her headdress.
“You!” She pointed her blade at him.
Krimsen turned to the dock master, “Gotta go!” And sprinted down the jetty.
The Altcloud pulled out from the landing trough and the sails caught the wind, it pulled around his way so Krimsen was sure they sighted him as he tore down the jetty like a mad man.
He could hear the pirate behind him, the planks of wood shuddering with each pursuing step.
The Altcloud let down a ladder rope at the end of the jetty, the yawning abyss of open sky expanded out beyond it but the cries from his crew above urged him on.
He was about to leap.
A shot from a cannon, from the Green Sting. Krimsen turned to see his hunter signalling to the ship, looked up to see a ball of fire emerge from the Green Sting and impact the deck before him. The concussive force knocked him off balance as splinters ripped through his coat.
The last sensations – before drifting out of consciousness – was of his stomach lurching as he fell from the planetoid into the open sky, the wind in his hair and clothes, and the smell of burning flesh and cloth.
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