††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Syrrus B is a dangerous place

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Filled by the scum of the human race

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Watch your purse, keep your sword nearby

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† And on those you pass keep a wary eye

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Chapter Sixteen

 

 

 

††††††††††† The Princess of Bral was, as might be expected, a luxury ship, outfitted with every possible extravagance.Despite the frills however, it was a sleek, fast ship, armed with two heavy ballistae, a light jettison, and a piercing ram, and was designed as much for use in battle as entertaining visiting luminaries.

††††††††††† It was designed around standard shrikeship lines:a thirty-ton ship, one hundred feet in length along the keel and thirty feet across the beam.It was shaped like its namesake, of course, with the sails (wings and tail) decorated with beautiful painted-on plumage, and an elongated ram that was fashioned to appear like a beak.It had a raised forecastle and stern castle, each mounted with a heavy ballista.The helm was enclosed, located within the forecastle.The gravity plane of the ship ran directly through the middle, so that the top deck and forecastle areas were on one side, and the lower deck was on the other (so that when stepping down into the lower deck gravity reversed itself:up became down, and down became up.The lower deck, obviously, was structured upside down from the main deck, for easier use).

††††††††††† Normally the ship had a crack crew of sailors and marines standing by for duty at all times, but, as Jack had expected, nearly all of the marines and the majority of the crew had been taken off their posts and sent to bolster the royal guardsmen who were combing the city and preparing for the inevitable battle to come.As a result, there were only a pair of marines and a skeleton crew of seven aboard.

††††††††††† Obviously the men had standing orders to have the ship prepared to sail at a moment's notice, for it was rigged for immediate flight, with the crew waiting uncertainly at their posts and the two marines lounging at the gangplank, glancing now and then towards the city.

††††††††††† The shorter of the two marines (actually they were very near the same height, but one of them stood with a lazy posture which made him appear hunched) eyed Jack warily as he approached, but said nothing.It was the taller of the two, whose eyes never lifted from their focus on the city, who finally addressed him when he was only a few scant steps away.

††††††††††† "About time somebody bloody remembered we were here, mate," the man said, still not looking at him."Has Cartan given real orders for us yet, then?This guard detail is women's work, especially with fighting to be done.I didn't sign on in the Prince's Guards to baby-sit pleasure ships."

††††††††††† The man's companion was still eyeing Jack warily, suspicion plain in his eyes."Exactly which division are you with, friend?" he asked, looking Jack up and down."I recognize the uniform, but not the face."

††††††††††† Jack grunted noncommittally, reached forward, and seized the haft of the man's pike.A slight tug jerked the startled man forward and off balance, and a light blow to the man's exposed throat sent him stumbling back gasping and coughing.

††††††††††† Jack dropped gracefully, his right heel spinning out low to sweep the man's feet from beneath him.The guardsman landed hard on his back, the force of his fall driving the remaining breath from his lungs.He rolled to his right side and lay there, panting.

††††††††††† Jack continued the motion of the spin, whipping the base of the pike around in a blow aimed at the second guardsman's head.

††††††††††† "What-" the man managed, before catching the end of the pike directly in the face.There was a crunching sound as the wood connected, and the man was flung backwards by the force of the blow, a tiny spatter of blood arcing through the air.He landed hard and lay still, a trickle of blood oozing from the corner of his mouth.

††††††††††† Jack stood, whipped the haft around in the opposite direction, and caught the first man, who was trying to rise, on the base of his skull.The man crumpled.

††††††††††† In two long strides Jack was aboard the Princess.

††††††††††† One of the crewmen, a swarthy fellow with an unshaven face, had snatched up a club and leaped forward, presumably to help the downed guardsmen.With two quick blows from the base of the pike, Jack disarmed him and sent him tumbling to the deck.The rest of the crew had not moved, still standing in surprise.

††††††††††† The swarthy man scrambled to his feet, only to find the tip of the pike's blade at his throat.

††††††††††† "Hold," instructed Jack."Don't force me to kill you.I hate to waste good men needlessly."

††††††††††† The crewmen looked each other, as if each of them was waiting for the others to take some action.

††††††††††† Quickly Julian, Cantoule, and the two brothers broke from where they were hiding and crossed the boarding ramp.In moments they had disarmed the remaining crewmembers, who surrendered their weapons peacefully.

††††††††††† The swarthy man backed off slowly from the tip of the pike, hands held up, suspicion still dark in his eyes."What do you intend?"

††††††††††† "I intend to make a journey to Syrrus B," answered Jack."To do that, I need a ship and a crew.I have the one now, and enough to make do for the other."

††††††††††† A tall crewmember with a gaunt face, thinning brown hair which drooped over his forehead, and dark eyes spoke up."And us?"

††††††††††† "That depends on you.As I said, I need a crew.I have enough to pilot the ship, but I could use more."

††††††††††† "Our loyalty is to the Prince," said the narrow-faced one, but his tone was doubtful.

††††††††††† Jack shrugged."The Prince is dead.And Cartan is not a forgiving master.It is your decision, but make it quickly.I have no time to waste."

††††††††††† "What did you say would happen if we refused your offer?" asked the swarthy man.

††††††††††† "I'll kill you.Of course, if you feel that strongly about it, at least that gives you the option to die with honor.And there is the small matter of the ship itself.I have no need of it after I reach Syrrus B.It is a finely appointed vessel, and would fetch a handsome price, even on the black market."

††††††††††† The men looked at each other.It wasn't much of a choice.The Prince was dead, after all, and the men were uncertain what their position here would be in the future.The swarthy-faced man spoke first."Can we trust you to keep your word, then?"

††††††††††† Jack shrugged."Not particularly.But you should know that I act only in my own best interest.For what it's worth, I never lie.And I'm not leaving you many options."

††††††††††† The narrow-faced man scowled."So be it.I see no other choice."He looked around at the other crewmen, who seemed to hold the same opinion.

††††††††††† Jack nodded.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† *††††††††† *††††††††† *

 

††††††††††† There was a mosquito-class warship on patrol above the Rock, monitoring outgoing spelljamming traffic.Its mission was nearly impossible at the moment, though, considering the agitation on the Rock, and the amount of spelljamming activity going on.The men aboard must have been capable, however, for as the Princess lifted it moved to intercept.

††††††††††† "They are signaling us to halt," barked the swarthy-faced man from where he stood peering out over the forward rail.He turned back to Jack with a questioning look.

††††††††††† Jack nodded."They are also asking for clearance codes, unless I am mistaken.I assume none of you know the codes?"

††††††††††† "The codes were known only to the Prince and lord Cartan," said the narrow-faced man uncertainly."Perhaps there were a few select others who knew the codes, but never us, my lord, I swear it."

††††††††††† Jack shrugged."I expected no less.I would do the same in Cartan's place.It is irrelevant in any case, as I cannot trust you to give the proper codes, and can only assume you would betray me."

††††††††††† "Not me, my lord," assured one of the other crewmen, a youth of about sixteen summers."I have thrown my lot in with you."

††††††††††† Jack shook his head."I always expect the worst.That way there are only pleasant surprises."He considered for a moment.

††††††††††† "What shall we do then?" asked the swarthy one."they are demanding we halt.Shall we engage?"

††††††††††† "Don't be a fool," said Julian."We haven't the weaponry to take on a ship of that size."

††††††††††† "Full forward," instructed Jack."Let's see how much they want us.We have the more maneuverable vessel."

††††††††††† "Full forward," repeated Breck from his place on the helm, and the ship surged forward.

††††††††††† The mosquito ship continued to signal for a moment, then started to come about in an effort to intercept the Princess.

††††††††††† "Roll right," said Jack."Angle forty degrees."

††††††††††† Wordlessly Breck obeyed, and the Princess pitched to the side.There was no sense of motion on deck, of course, aside from the sudden shift in position of the Rock and the mosquito ship.

††††††††††† Julian smiled, realizing that the mosquito ship wouldn't be able to close the gap, that the Princess would be able to get by before the other ship intercepted."We have them.They can't catch us."

††††††††††† "We're not out of it yet," said Jack.

††††††††††† At that moment, the other ship fired its port jettisons.Soundlessly a rain of debris arced out, straight into the path of the Princess.

††††††††††† "Brace for impact!" commanded Jack.

††††††††††† The debris from the mosquito ship's jettison seemed to hang in slow motion, moving slowly across the forward field of vision.

††††††††††† "They're off," said Julian."They've missed us with the main barrage!"

††††††††††† At that moment the little ship quivered and trembled as it passed into the field of fire, and the most the elf could do was cling precariously to his perch and hope he wouldn't be speared by the sudden rain of steel which passed around the ship.

††††††††††† The main barrage missed the Princess, true, but some of the debris on the outskirts of the barrage raked across the little ship's decks.

††††††††††† It was over in a moment, and the jettison debris was past, tumbling soundlessly away through the void on the port side of the ship.

††††††††††† "Status?" barked Jack, looking around him.

††††††††††† "Some hull damage," said the narrow-faced crewmember, "but the sails are good."

††††††††††† "Make full sail then," instructed Jack.

††††††††††† Julian breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the sails had not been holed.There was little chance now that the mosquito ship would catch the Princess before she made spelljamming speed.He took a moment to take stock of himself, and found himself entirely unharmed, although a jagged piece of metal the size of his forearm had slammed into the deck less than three feet in front of him and still quivered there.

††††††††††† He looked back towards the mosquito ship."They won't catch us now."

††††††††††† Apparently the captain of the mosquito ship thought the same, for after a few minutes of giving chase, it banked right and turned to return to the Rock.

††††††††††† "We're clear," said Breck from his place at the helm.

††††††††††† Jack nodded."Go to spelljamming speed."

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† *††††††††† *††††††††† *

 

††††††††††† Since the Devros asteroid belt was in the same system as the Rock, the journey was a relatively short one.After a quick jaunt away from the Rock the Princess slowed, coming out of spelljamming speed and checking to see if they were being pursued.Apparently the mosquito had truly abandoned pursuit, for nothing appeared.

††††††††††† While a detail of crewman went to work repairing the hull damage (which turned out to be relatively minor), Cantoule went below decks and pored over the star charts.This took some time, as he wasn't officially trained in navigation, but eventually he reappeared and gave the helmsman coordinates for their course.

††††††††††† "How certain are you?" Jack asked him when he emerged from the navigation room.

††††††††††† The old man shrugged."Not completely.More certain than you would be, I suppose."

††††††††††† And that was as good an answer as Jack was going to get.

††††††††††† They reached the Devros belt (it was a belt, although a rather large one, even though it didn't circle anything in particular, just empty space) in about a day and a half.And that was good; any longer and there would certainly have been trouble - Cantoule set about trying to convert the crew immediately.Fortunately the ship was so seriously undermanned that in order to work the sails every man was needed, including Jack, Julian, and Cantoule, so there wasn't much spare time for proselytizing.

††††††††††† And then they reached the belt, and there wasn't time for anything.

††††††††††† Although it wasn't the most active or dense belt in existence (it certainly paled beside the Grinder, in Greyspace), it was still an asteroid field, with large and small asteroids hurtling at high speed in random directions, and negotiating it even with a full crew and a maneuverable ship it was a perilous endeavor.With a skeleton crew, it was a formidable task indeed.

††††††††††† Like any conventional spelljamming ship, maneuverability rested mainly in the ability of the crew to operate the sails to catch the wind currents.The helmsman's experience contributed, of course, but he could only roughly steer.

††††††††††† Added to the other difficulties the belt presented was the additional fact that the Devros belt had its own atmosphere.(The Devros belt was not the only one to have an atmosphere of its own; there were at least two others in known space.The exact physics of how a mass of moving planetoids could hold an atmosphere was unknown and still a matter of speculation and debates by sages.In any case, Devros's atmosphere corresponded with its general shape - that of a donut.)The atmosphere was extremely turbulent, with gale-force winds which could, if they hit the Princess the wrong way, destroy the sails and cripple the ship.

††††††††††† So when the Princess entered the field, the entire crew was stationed in the rigging, with Julian in the prow of the forecastle and Breck in the stern castle, each of them watching for approaching asteroids.Jack and Cantoule stationed themselves on the main deck, within yelling distance of the helmsman, to coordinate the warnings from Julian and Breck with the movements of the sails.

††††††††††† The shrieking of the winds swallowed most of the yells, so Julian and Breck had to work out a system of signals to convey their warnings.

††††††††††† At first, at the edge of the field, where it was least dense, the going was fairly easy.Occasionally the ship would have to alter course to avoid an asteroid which was hurtling towards them, but for the most part the going was steady.

††††††††††† Then they got into the thick of it.

††††††††††† At first, Julian was certain the ship would be smashed to splinters.The whirling of the asteroids was like a rain of boulders, coming at the little ship from virtually all directions.

††††††††††† But Jack dealt with each obstacle as it appeared, coolly delivering orders to the crewmen manning the sails and the helmsman, and time after time the little ship slipped out of the path of the oncoming planetoids, sometimes avoiding destruction by only a few scant feet.

††††††††††† Still the onslaught seemed only to get worse, and Julian prepared himself for what seemed to be the inevitable destruction of the ship.

††††††††††† Yet somehow the ship made its way through the most furious part of the belt.

††††††††††† Strangely enough, it was when they were in a relatively clear area that they had their closest call.

††††††††††† Julian had just begun to relax, thinking they had finally made it clear, when suddenly a very small planetoid (no larger than a large rock) appeared out of nowhere, hurtling straight for the ship from below and slightly to port.

††††††††††† It had closed to within two hundred yards before it was noticed.With a shriek, Breck gestured furiously down at it.

††††††††††† "Hard climb!" barked Jack, and the helmsman responded.With a slight whine and a detectable vibration, the ship lifted out of its present course.

††††††††††† But the asteroid was too close."Brace for impact!" yelled Jack, realizing they would be hit.As it whooshed past, a jutting rock cluster on one side of the planetoid clipped the bottom of the hull, ripping a small section to splinters and shaking the little ship furiously.

††††††††††† With a shrill scream, one of the crewmen sailed out of the rigging, tumbling out of the ship's gravity plane and into the void.Apparently he had not secured himself to his post adequately.It was the narrow-faced man, and Julian realized that he had never even learned the man's name.He watched the man until he disappeared from sight, wondering how long the man would live before he fell into the path of another oncoming asteroid.

††††††††††† "Check the hull!" Jack yelled at one of the remaining crewman.It was the youngest one."Give me a damage report!And the rest of you keep an eye out for other planetoids.I don't want any more surprises!"

††††††††††† The youth scuttled to the railing, climbing down the wooden service ladder (which extended down the side) until he reached the gravity plane, then in an adroit maneuver, he flipped himself in the plane and climbed 'up' the rest of the way, disappearing over the side as he scrambled onto the 'bottom' of the ship.

††††††††††† A moment later he reappeared, bending over the side and yelling a damage report 'down' to the crew in the sails.There was major damage to the hull, and the ship wouldn't be able to land on water anytime soon, but the ship wasn't crippled.

††††††††††† Jack turned to Cantoule."How much farther?"

††††††††††† Cantoule shrugged."Trust in Tyr, brother.He will guide us."

††††††††††† Jack was in no mood for platitudes."What does that mean?"

††††††††††† "It means I've got to check my calculations again."

††††††††††† From then on the voyage was relatively peaceful.The crew remained in a state of constant alert, but they only once had to alter course.

††††††††††† It took Almighty Cantoule four hours to find Syrrus B.It turned out to be fairly nearby, but since it looked like most of the other large asteroids, it took time to pick it out.

††††††††††† Externally, Syrrus B looked pretty much like the rest of those found within the Devros belt.That was because the city and the port were inside, which made sense, considering that the exterior would be constantly pummeled by smaller asteroids.(The larger asteroids were not a problem, as they were on regular orbits and could be avoided; the many smaller asteroids were not in a particular orbit.)

††††††††††† It was irregularly shaped, with a rough and pock-marked surface, and looked something like a gigantic pear, tumbling through the void.

††††††††††† The Princess of Bral entered the asteroid's gravity plane (Syrrus B was large enough that it possessed a gravity plane which curved through the center of the crust which made up the surface, creating a roughly pear-shaped plane), and began orbiting it, searching for the entrance to the interior.

††††††††††† After a half-hour of cruising, they found what they were looking for; a large mountain, jutting up from the crust, which had a hole in its peak (it looked something like a dead volcano) which led down into the hollow center of the asteroid.

††††††††††† Jack brought the Princess down, and hovered at the rim of the mountain.(This was proper etiquette, as those within could see out, while those outside could not see in.)

††††††††††† After ten minutes a tiny catamaran appeared from below, lifting upwards.It stopped on the same level as the Princess, and approached.There were only two people aboard:a helmsman and a short man with a red sash around his arm.

††††††††††† The short man boarded, stating that he was both the representative of the port authority and the pilot, and demanding to know their business.Jack politely explained that their business was their own, and none of his, and slipped him a very heavy bribe.

††††††††††† The short man pocketed the bribe as if it were expected, and rattled off a short list of do's and doníts while they were in Syrrus.Basically it was don't kill anybody or steal anything, unless there was absolutely no chance of getting caught.

††††††††††† Jack thanked him for his concern, and the short man reboarded the skiff, leading them down into the tunnel.

††††††††††† For a moment the ship was enclosed in complete darkness, as it descended and the opening at the top of the tunnel shrank above them.

††††††††††† The pilot craft had lit a signal lantern, which looked like a tiny spark far below.

††††††††††† Jack ordered that the ship's lanterns be lit, both in the forecastle and sterncastle, not only so that it would be easier to see the walls of the tunnel (which were fairly regular, but jutted out in some areas) but also so that they could be seen.(This too was simply good etiquette, but practical in that a ship running dark would probably be fired upon.As Syrrus B was very well defended, this was the last thing Jack wanted.)

††††††††††† The pilot ship suddenly stopped its descent, deftly flipping upside down, and then 'climbed' downward.

††††††††††† "Gravity plane," said Jack."Brace for shift!"

††††††††††† The Princess slowed as it approached the gravity plane, turning onto its side.The crew had firm grips on the rigging, so the turn did not catch them by surprise.

††††††††††† And then the flip was complete:the ship had righted itself on the other side of the plane, and now was 'climbing' further into the tunnel.

††††††††††† The Princess emerged from the tunnel and into a vast cavern.Syrrus spread out on all sides (even atop them, as the ceiling was lined with the city as well - the gravity plane was basically spherical).It was not particularly impressive, though, lit only by lamps and guttering torches.

††††††††††† "City of the damned!" murmured Cantoule mournfully."In mighty need of smiting!"

††††††††††† The pilot ship led them up to the center of the massive cavern, stopped, flipped again as the gravity shifted, then led them 'down' to the ceiling, where the port was located.

††††††††††† Docking proved difficult, with the hull damaged as it was, but not impossible, and soon the ship was grounded.

††††††††††† They waited the appropriate amount of time for a port official to appear, but none did

††††††††††† At long last Jack decided he no one was coming."Justin," he said, addressing the smaller of the two brothers, "I'm going to go find a man.I will either return in less than two hours or not at all.If I return, I expect this ship to be here, ready to sail.If I haven't returned in that time, the ship is yours to do with as you wish - divide it among yourselves as you will."

††††††††††† Justin nodded."Very well."

††††††††††† Jack shook his head."I expect this ship to be here for two hours.If it lifts before then, whether I have need of it or not, I will find you.Remember, I never lie."

††††††††††† Justin whitened."I understand."

††††††††††† "Good."Jack nodded.He turned to Julian."We go."

††††††††††† "Indeed," declared Cantoule, marching down the gangplank behind them, "it is time to depart."

††††††††††† Jack halted at the end of the ramp."You are not coming with us, old man."

††††††††††† Cantoule gave him an indignant look."Of course I'm not.I'm a busy man, and must be about Tyr's business.I don't have time to baby-sit you."He turned and marched off in the opposite direction."Tyr has seen fit to throw me back into this den of iniquity a second time.If the people here do not heed his message this time, woe unto them.Divine retribution has arrived!"

††††††††††† Jack shook his head as he watched the old man depart.

††††††††††† "He's mad," said Julian."I don't expect to see him alive again."

††††††††††† "Don't be so certain," said Jack."I think he may surprise you."He turned away."Now, let's find Jarren Windhook."