Friday, October 29, 2010

Chapter 40 - TURF

By the time we reached the hatch at the top of the ladder, we were climbing using only our arms and only touching every few rungs to keep us propelled upward. Before entering the now open hatch, Skinny Dude opened a cubby, drew out two long staffs and propelled them ahead of us. Once he and I had followed them, the hatch was closed, leaving only him and me in the huge empty space that could only be the center of the station.

I’ve seen these puzzles where there is a collection of about ten sticks all at different angles held in place by strings laced across the ends of the sticks; in the center was a glass ball. The point of the puzzle was to remove the ball by sliding the sticks in the right direction along the strings. I felt like we were inside that ball but there was no glass between the girders and us.

As soon as my eyes had assessed my surroundings and had come back to him, he spoke. “You’re going to fight me for the right to exist on my strip and only I will decide when the fight is over.” He launched one of the staffs at me.

I recognized the move and deflected it without loosing the staff in this weightlessness. I hadn’t pitted myself against Master Larak and learned nothing in all those months. Skinny Dude might be better at the ‘no gravity’ thing, but I did know how to handle a staff. It looked like he was going to use a style I wasn’t familiar with though.

For my friends and my teachers, a staff had simply been an over long club, but I didn’t have the weight to do quite the same thing and had been forced to modify my style accordingly. My hands could therefore be most anywhere on a staff, but seldom directly in the center.

With a deft kick off one of the girders, my adversary launched at me with a vicious swing. It was supposed to connect with my head. I wasn’t entirely successful in twisting out of the way, and though he missed my head by no more than a hair, the other end of his staff connected with my shin. I’m certain that if the blow had landed under gravity, my leg would be broken; it felt like it was broken anyway; jeans weren’t the protection my leathers were.

I learned something from that as well as my own counter attack. Being in the center of his staff, his attack was much more balanced and controlled. Mine, on the other hand, was slower and I was propelled away by the force of my own swing, which of course missed entirely. I learn quickly though. I adjusted my grip on my staff and kicked myself back into the center of the chamber.

By the time the fight was over, I had a royal shiner with a cut at the end of my eyebrow that was bleeding freely and leaving drops of blood floating around. I had a chipped tooth and a loose tooth, a split lip that was adding to the red blobs in the air. I also had three broken fingers on my left hand, at least a couple broken ribs and a broken shinbone. That might sound pretty bad, but my opponent was wracked up every bit as bad. I don’t think I broke any fingers or his leg, but I know I broke some ribs at least twice and he had a nasty gash on the side of his head right over what could well be a concussion. I just left him and his staffs floating there and made my way to the first hatch I could find. I was rather proud of myself; I hadn’t used any magic, though I was tempted to at least give myself some stability, but I really didn’t want an unfair advantage since it seems that I had strength on him already and skill than he expected.

When I finally made it out onto the strip again, I was greeted by a scream, which brought security guards within moments (I guess I must look quite a sight by now with blood running all down my front). They took me to the infirmary where they patched me up with stitches, straps and splints; my shinbone was only bruised and skinned.

The station governor came to see me while I was getting my stitches (he managed to miss them setting my fingers) and asked me what had happened, and then, almost in the same breath, he told me. He knew about Skinny Dude and his gang; all I did was confirm what he already knew and tell him that I had been the winner.

He seemed a little surprised about that. It seems that Skinny Dude was his son and he had been caught at this too many times. The governor told me that he would reimburse us for our entire stay here and pay for our flight if we wouldn’t report it. I was in no little pain; the drugs they had given me for the pain weren’t competing too well with my magic, so I just told him he could talk to my dad about that.

Needless to say, my parents were in a right tizzy when the governor brought me back to our rooms. What they said or agreed on, I have no idea; I went directly to my room to lie down. I share a room with Georgy and Pip, and Georgy was watching a movie when I came in.

He glanced up and then did a double take. “My god, what happened to you?”

“I ran afoul of the governor’s son and won,” I muttered through my swollen mouth. I went to my bed and flopped down on it. Oh man, that was a mistake - take my advice, if you ever get beat up, don’t ‘flop’ anywhere, not even at one-fifth gravity.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chapter 39 - TRAVEL PLANS

Late wasn’t quite the word for it. When I came down into the common room, lunch was in full swing and my plate was waiting for me. I wasn’t quite awake enough to begin worrying yet, so my appetite raged unhindered.

Pip just smiled, but my parents began to grow concerned as I put away my third plate of food. They made no comment though, and waited until I was finished before speaking.

“We have come to a decision,” said my father, after the waitress had removed our plates and brought us our drinks. Pip had ordered a brandy, my parents each had a glass of white wine, but Georgy and I had ice water. My experience with alcohol had not been too favorable yet. “We have decided to take our case directly to the emperor.”

I nearly choked on my water. “Won’t they be expecting us to do something like that? They’ll find us.”

“That’s a possibility, but I’m hoping they won’t be looking in that direction at all. If we can present our case to the emperor before we’re hauled in as criminals, it will look a lot better for us. It’ll make us appear more the victim in this. We’ll have to present the entire case, Liam, which means that you’ll have to show the emperor some of what you can do. The man isn’t stupid; he knows what kind of man the baron was. We’ll have the entire trip to plan what to say and do in more detail.”

I groaned. “Dad, you’re talking six to eight months of faster than light travel. What if . . . what if something goes wrong? I dealt with the PTS boost all right this time, but this is new. What if . . . .”

“If you can handle PTS boost, you can handle this,” dad said. “Don’t you remember when we made the trip last time? It’s unpleasant, but not nearly as drastic as cryo-sleep. I’ll coach you through it before we start and make sure you know exactly what to expect.”

I groaned again and looked from face to face. “Are you sure this is the best thing? Not that I want to spend the rest of my life on the run, but this seems like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”


We went to book our flight using Pip’s name and the money dad had paid him, then we went shopping. Pip was fine with me making things to order as long as it wasn’t food, but mom wasn’t convinced that I could get it right. Mom likes to go shopping. I have come to the conclusion that shopping is my mom’s version of my rain dance.

Though it almost hurt my mom’s feelings, she bought us all common clothes to wear. Our cover was that dad and Pip were cousins, which made Georgy and me second cousins once removed or something like that; anyway, we were one big happy family going to Earth on a pilgrimage. It was not unheard of for people to travel to Earth at least once in their lives in order to tour all the historical sights of the origin of man. It would also allow for us to be a bit eccentric though we were only traveling common class. Mom didn’t have a clue how to act like a commoner and dad was just as bad.

The next morning, we packed our luggage (as I said, mom likes to go shopping) and headed for the docks. We would take a shuttle to one of the space stations in orbit, and then from there, we would get on one of the space liners and begin our journey to Earth.

The space station was a minimum gravity complex. It operated at about one-fifth normal gravity, but it was almost like going to the mall. There were hundreds of shops of all sorts, offering everything from reading material to alcohol to toys. The selection might be a little smaller and the prices somewhat higher, but for the most part, if you wanted it, you could find it along the strip somewhere.

Our ship would arrive in two days and take a day to turn over then we would be leaving. In a way, I could hardly wait to go, but also in a way, I dreaded the departure. I feared that my basilisk might rear its ugly head and do something under the stress of passing into light speed, and I feared I was strong enough to make that a very dangerous prospect.

Mom occupied her time with more shopping, though she didn’t really buy much here. I went with her some, but I found shopping boring. Finally, mom got tired of my impatient company and told me to go for a run. “You always used to burn off all that extra energy when you would go running around with your friends. Why don’t you try it here?” I didn’t understand what she meant by that at first, but she pointed out a young woman jogging past, and it occurred to me that I had seen her go past before. Run; I hadn’t run since I left Planet 663-457, home to me.

I went to our room and changed into a t-shirt and jeans with tennis shoes. When I stood out on the strip, I felt a little odd. I had never run just for the exercise; I had always run in order to get somewhere and because my friends had always ran wherever they went. What could I lose? It would burn off some nervous energy like mom said.

The pace I had learned to be comfortable with was a long legged pace that was almost a full sprint. It felt so good to get the blood pumping, and at one-fifth gravity, it was so easy. It took me almost an hour to make one complete circuit and I made three circuits before I stopped at a cafeteria and bought a bottle of water.

I drained half of it while I turned to leave the shop. When I lowered it, I found my way blocked by three men. At least two of them looked like men three or four years older than me; the third one might have been the same age, but he was unnaturally thin. That and his white hair made him look old.

It was the thin one who spoke. “Who gave you permission to use my strip for anything other than spending money?”

I was surprised at the question. He didn’t look like someone who might be in charge of the station. He wasn’t old enough for that by a long shot. “My mother did.”

“Your mother?” His tone was dripping with sarcasm. “You have to earn the right to do that and I don’t recall seeing your mother.”

“We just got here; we’ll be leaving day after tomorrow, so I won’t be a threat to your authority for too long.” I moved to step passed him, but he snagged my arm.

“You’ll have to pay the penalty for your actions if you don’t want a lot of trouble.”

“What - I don’t have any money.” I didn’t. I hadn’t asked dad for another credit chip yet. The water had been put on our room bill.

The two bigger guys moved around and took each one of my arms. The skinny dude just smirked and said, “You don’t understand, I’m going to have to punish you. Bring him.”

I could have broken free, but I was curious, so I went along. After a few yards, I pulled my arms free in order to finish my water and chuck my bottle in a trash bin.

A couple hundred yards further, we entered a service hatch marked ‘Station Personnel Only’, and then we began to climb a ladder. They must work for the station; I wondered if their boss knew what they did in their free time. I also wondered if they were going to plug me in to one of the glittering panels we were passing; if they shorted out a fair chunk of the station, it would take them another month to fix it - job security.

He didn’t seem at all interested in those panels though, and as we climbed, I realized that the gravity that was already light for me was growing lighter. That little revelation told me where we must be heading as well as why he was so thin. He had spent virtually his entire life in low or no gravity. We were going to his turf. I wondered what we were going to do there, but I had my suspicions.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chapter 38 - THE FIRST TIME

Next to sit at my table was a girl I had never seen before. Before I could ask her what she wanted, three guards entered the inn. At first, I thought that guy who tried to take my dad’s sword might have sent them, but their words were an indication of something much worse.

“We’re looking for a man, a woman and a sixteen year old kid. Has anyone in here seen anything like that?” one of them asked loud enough for everyone to hear.

I tossed the rest of my drink back and gasped as fire rushed back up my throat.

Getting no response to their question, the guards decided to apply a little pressure. They went to every table and looked each occupant closely in the eye, asking their question again. When one of them reached my table, and leaned on it, I forced myself to look him directly in the eyes. “You look like you might be about the right age. You staying here by yourself, are you?”

I showed him my key.

The girl scooted her chair closer to me and put her hand on my arm as if for security.

“Why are you looking for these people?” I asked.

The man reared his head up and glared at me. “I’m the one asking the questions here.” Then he glanced at the girl and moved on to the next table.

When they went upstairs, I stepped outside. The girl clung to my arm. I let her because she would make me appear older than sixteen. Perhaps the guards thought she was my wife. Plus, if they found my parents up there, I could interfere with them out here in the dark a lot easier than in the inn where there would be far too many witnesses.

As I leaned against the building, the girl wrapped herself around my arm and started to rub her leg against me.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I almost wanted to push her away.

“You looked like you could use some company,” she said.

Oh my god, I had a hooker. What do I do now? “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” I said, as I diverted her hand from going down my pants.

She had succeeded in getting my shirt unbuckled by the time the guards left the building. They were alone. The man who had stopped at my table saw us and chuckled. “Take it inside. You don’t want to get arrested for lewd behavior, do you?”

As soon as they were out of sight, I pushed the girl away from me. “That’s enough.” I walked off down the street away from her, refastening my shirt. I suddenly felt like I was about to crawl out of my skin.

As I walked, it started to rain. The rain felt good and I stopped long enough to tip my face to it. Then, off to the side, I saw a burned out building back from the street a ways and I had an idea. I went to explore it. It was perfect. It was open to the sky and all view from the street was blocked. I drew my sword and searched for my music.

It was long after suppertime when I found my way back to the inn. I begged a plate of meats from the innkeeper and went up to my room.

I set my plate on the table and went directly into my little bathroom. I hung my clothes in the shower and remade them, leaving the water to run down the drain. Then I took a shower. With a towel wrapped around my middle, I sat down at the table to eat my meal.

I hadn’t lit a light in the room; I didn’t need one. It was cloudy and dark outside, but with the curtains open, there was more than enough light for me. I was a bit giddy but very relaxed and growing full rapidly as I made short work of my meal, so I was totally unprepared for someone other than me turning the light on.

With my arm over my eyes, I was a thought away from attacking whoever was in the room when she spoke. “Oh my, are those bullet wounds?”

Oh my god, the hooker; she was here. “What are you doing here?” I asked as I peeked from under my arm.

There she stood in all her glory. Fine glory. Then I looked at my bed; she had been waiting for me there.

“I still think you could use some company,” she said.

“I don’t need any company. Go find someone else and leave me alone.”

Before I could see well enough to fend her off, she had danced forward and pulled my towel away. I didn’t want to hurt her and I didn’t want to bring the whole house into my room to investigate the commotion, so trying to be quiet, I did my best to keep her at a distance. However, the euphoria left over from my rain dance, and the fact that I was now well fed, combined with my youthful hormones, utterly raging by now, as well as my curiosity; it all conspired against my brain and she won.

The first time was a lesson. The second was a better lesson. The third time was pure joy. I’m not going to tell you about the rest of the night. It was only some time later that it occurred to me to do it in the shower. That might be fun. Needless to say, when the dawn arrived, I was oblivious to it and woke only when my father knocked on the door.

At the sound I sat up abruptly thinking vaguely that it was time to start the day back at the cave, but then I remembered where I was and why. The girl was gone and she had taken the only thing in the room that was of value to her, my credit chip. Using my magic, I sought out the very familiar object and changed it into a useless metal coin. I might have let her have it if it didn’t draw on a relatively bottomless account.

The knock came again.

“What?” I asked, still feeling groggy from lack of sleep.

“Are you all right?” said my father. “It’s late, we were worried about you. It’s time we talked.”

“All right, I’ll be down in a minute.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chapter 37 - EXPLANATIONS

My sword was sheathed but my hand rested on my dagger at my back, ready to draw it in a moment should I need to. Mom and dad followed close behind me.

He led us through many winding back alleys with many twists and turns along the way. He also bought us several short rides on assorted transportation systems going different directions. As I watched him, I felt certain that he was doing his best to throw off anyone who might have thought to try to follow us.

Finally he led us into an inn not far from the docks and then up to a room on the second floor. Pip was sitting there at a small table looking quite used and much abused.

My guide went and stood behind him and I went forward to clasp his hand with relief. “Pip, I thought you were dead. They told me they had discarded your box at the docks.”

“They did. In fact, they discarded me among the freight almost at once. If it weren’t for Georgy here, I’d be dead for sure. Speaking of which, I think we are due for a few introductions.” He indicated the young man who stood at his shoulder. “This is my nephew, Georgy. I enlisted his help as possible backup in case something happened to me, or we got separated, and it’s a good thing I did. You, McTavish, weren’t supposed to spot him or even notice him unless he was needed, but I thought your reactions would be much better if I didn’t tell you otherwise.” Then he turned his eyes on my parents. “And you, Mr. and Mrs. McTavish, I’m glad you’re safe, but I think you should do a little introducing of your own. I think you owe your son an explanation.”

I was surprised. I looked at my parents. “What does that mean?”

My mother seemed to wilt and my father guided her over to the bed and sat down with her, but he didn’t offer to speak for her.

While I watched my mother wrestle with herself, Pip whispered something to his nephew who left the room quietly.

“Liam,” mom began with difficulty, “We . . . your father and I . . . were in no real danger. The baron wouldn’t dare. You see . . . he’s my father, and he never claimed any other heirs. He kept us incommunicado. We couldn’t get any messages out to you. We couldn’t warn you in any way. It didn’t occur to us that you might come looking for us. We just hoped that, in time, he would let it go and in the mean time you would be safe on that planet.”

I groped for the only other chair in the room. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Liam. I should have told you long ago, but I didn’t think it would ever matter,” continued my mother. “I was disowned when I married your father, that’s why we moved to Earth.”

Making my first sword hadn’t made me as numb as I was right now. I had to get out. I had to think and I couldn’t do it while looking at my mom’s face.

I left the room, passing Georgy on the stairs, and made it as far as a table near a cold fireplace before I had to sit down again. It was just as well; half the city was probably looking for me by now.

I sat there, churning over what I had just heard and what I feared would happen now. I had just killed my grandfather. My grandfather was a baron. My parents and I would be hunted by the entire empire, but there was no hiding; we were known - well known. I could think of no real justification, no real excuse for doing what I had done other than the fact that I could. What did it matter if he had had me whipped? What did it matter what he had wanted from me and how wrong it would have been to give it to him? Surely, I could have gotten us out of there without killing.

My father came down and sat down beside me. He laid my original sword belt on the table in front of me. “Mr. Pip said you might want this.”

I reached out my hand and touched the familiar wear spots, nicks and scrapes on the leather. I opened my cloak and unbuckled the one I wore. It was pristine. I coiled the belt around the sword, like the other one was, and laid it in front of my father. “You can have this one.” I let my hand linger a second, making the dragons disappear. “The dragons are mine. They need to be sharpened.”

Dad touched the back of my hand. “I’d like to get a better look at this.”

I unbuckled my sleeve and pulled it up as far as it would go and traced where the tail went for him to imagine since my sleeve wouldn’t go up that far.

“It’s beautiful. What made you get it?”

“I was throwing my credits around, using my name as much as possible. I was trying to attract attention. It worked. I don’t think I’ll do this again; it hurt. If I decide I want another tattoo, I’ll do it the easy way.” I pulled my sleeve back down and buckled it again.

“The easy way; what way is that?”

I just smiled and touched his chest. “Like that.”

With a bemused smile, he unbuttoned a couple buttons on his shirt and took a peek. On his chest I had put a small red heart, shot through with an arrow, written in it was my mother’s name.

He just smiled and nodded. “Your mother will like it.”

The mention of my mother brought me back to my problem. “Dad, what’re we going to do now? I really messed things up.”

His reply was interrupted by a massive hand coming to rest on the sword belt I had just given him. “It ain’t right that you should have two such fine get-ups. Why don’t you give one of ‘em to me?” The man looked like a football player only he wasn’t wearing padding; it was the muscles of his shoulders, arms and chest that stretched his shirt so far.

“No,” I said calmly. “I gave that to my father. You can’t have it.”

The man had been in the process of drawing the belt toward him, but he froze and looked me directly in the face. I’m sure he was seeing a young teenager trying to look much older than he was.

Someone from behind him spoke up. “Bart, if you start another fight, I’ll have to call the guard again. That’ll make it your third time here.”

Dad looked like he wanted to become part of the woodwork, but he stayed where he was. If he were to start moving away, everyone would follow his example and that would clear the way for a fight.

“Now boy,” the man said. “Think what you’re sayin’. You got two of them fancy outfits. What would anybody need with two?”

“You can’t have it,” I repeated, while staring the man directly in the eyes.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father go pale, but to his credit, he showed no other reaction.

With a sly look coming across his eyes, the man named Bart moved the belt another inch and then grew suddenly pale as well, but for a very different reason.

My father had gone pale because he had been looking at the table, and he saw my sword melt down through its sheath as well as the table and out of sight without leaving a single trace of its passing. My antagonist went pale because he suddenly felt the point of that blade poking him in a very tender, very valuable place from under the table.

“Please remove your hand from my father’s gift.”

He did just that as if it were suddenly very hot. “Pardon me for disturbin’ ye, sir,” he said as he backed away. He left the bar shortly after that. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life wondering how I had managed to draw my sword without him seeing.

I stood slowly, brought my sword out from under the table and slid it back into its sheath, then I deliberately buckled it around my waist before sitting down again.

A barmaid came over with two small glasses full of some amber liquid. “The innkeeper says thank ‘e for breakin’ the fight. This is on the house.”

Dad nodded his thanks and tossed back a gulp with a grimace. After he set the half-empty glass back on the table, he drew the sword belt back in front of him and slid the blade out a few inches. “Just what can you do?”

I took an experimental sip of my drink. It was smooth as fine oil and kindled a nice warmth in my roiling stomach, but it tasted nasty. It was probably better than the one beer I’d had though. I turned back to trying to answer my father’s question. “Master Durmas told me that first day that I should consider myself an infant only just learning to crawl. It took me a few weeks to learn how to stand. I figure I’ve got a firm grip on walking now. I might even be able to run a little. I have no idea how far it will go; perhaps I’ll fly someday.”

Dad raised an eyebrow at my analogy and then ran his thumb down the few inches of exposed blade in front of him. “There’s no edge.”

“I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. It’s not hard to sharpen though.” I set a stone in front of him and then I brought out a small stone flask of oil and a small cloth. I had made each one of them under the table out of sight. It looked as though I was bringing them out of a pocket.

Dad smiled as he realized what I’d done. “You’re kind of handy.” Dad finished his drink and then he went back up to mom.

I sipped at my drink; it had been a gift so I intended to finish it, but I figured I’d not order it again.

I was just beginning to mire myself in my worries again when Pip showed up.

“You all right, kid?” he asked as he took the seat my father had vacated. He held up my father’s empty glass and the barmaid came over and replaced it with a drink of his own.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m glad you made it too. Tell me how you did it.” I figured listening to his tale would put off my worries for a little while longer.

He sipped at his drink. “Well, it took Georgy most of an entire day to realize we were missing. Then he had a heck of a time finding both of us. You were easy. They kept you in the back of the infirmary. They buried my box in one of the four cargo holds.

“By the time he found me and opened the damn thing, I had long since come to the conclusion that I was dead. I was hungry and thirsty and I couldn’t even call for help. It was all I could do to breathe. Despite the fact that my box wasn’t near as comfortable as yours, we thought that I should stay in it, just in case someone were to check once in a while. Georgy brought me food and water every day, twice a day if he could manage it. It gave me a chance to stretch my legs for a few minutes.”

“Then you were lucky. I was kept in the box, packed tight all the time. They shoved a tube down my throat and pumped me full of food and drugs . . . oh I don’t know . . . once a day I think. I think the worst part was that my magic wouldn’t let the drugs work.”

We sat in silence while Pip finished his drink and ordered another one.

“What now, Pip? I asked.

“I guess we see what your parents want to do.” He slid a key over to me. “I’m going to bed.”

Before he could leave, I asked him, “Pip, how did you find out about my parents?”

“I didn’t know, not until we got here. Too many things were too strange, so I did some checking. All the strange links fell into place pretty quickly after that. Your mom’s face is well known here.” He left then. “You should eat something,” he said over his shoulder.

Yeah, I probably should. I hadn’t spent much magic all things considered, and I was in such a whirl, I couldn’t even think straight enough to decide whether I was hungry or not.