Almost immediately she crossed the hex border into Trun and felt the temperature and pressure change as she cleared the barrier. It wasn’t unexpected; she had flown out this way before. Still, it was cooler, the air smelled quite different, and the winds were not as stiff, causing her to work harder at maintaining distance and altitude.
She soon found out that the different weather conditions wasn’t the real problem; rather, it was attempting something she had never done before and landing without killing herself on the deck of the ship below.
It was a big, black, ugly thing. The polished wooden deck all around was covered with all sorts of unknown objects, and the front of the ship looked like somebody’d staged a riot, with all the ropes and other gadgets lying about.
As she flew over, she discovered that the smoke coming from the twin funnels was quite warm and caused its own set of minivortices that threatened to spin her around. The tall masts and extensive rigging blocked a lot of the obvious clear spaces as well.
She would normally have taken some direction from birds, or whatever the equivalent of birds would be in a strange hex, except there weren’t any birds, nor much of anything else in the air save the smoke. There were rarely birds in hexes without land; while the dominant species could cross the boundaries, lower forms of life rarely if ever did.
She had seen birds along the Amboran coast, however, and when the occasional fishing vessel had strayed across a border they’d gone down to them, almost always approaching from the rear of the boat. So now, as she flew over the ship, she angled out, then came around and approached it again from the rear.
It was better and easier, but smellier as well, as the odor from the funnels drifted back. Still, the big ship was proceeding along at a steady pace, cutting through the air, causing air to flow around both sides of it and providing a limited comfort zone for flying creatures below the top deck and off the back of the vessel. It wasn’t easy, angling in and coming down on the second deck from the top, but it was the only reasonable landing area not obscured by rigging ropes or screwed up by atmospherics, and she tried for it. The first pass, she pulled up at the last minute, realizing she’d been coming in too fast. Then she came in slower and more carefully, and managed to clear the rail and cut forward motion by rapidly folding her wings. She slipped a bit on the smoothly polished deck, then grabbed a metallic railing and steadied herself.
She was down, but not in a comfortable position. There was a door right in front of her, but it took a bit of experimentation before she realized that it slid to one side rather than opened in or out. She finally managed to slide it open sufficiently to enter the interior of the ship, and was startled when, after letting go, the door slid closed again behind her on its own.
Inside there was a plush carpet that gave her long claws something to grab hold of, and she was able to stand there for a moment and look around at this new place.
It was a back lounge of some kind, possibly a sitting area for those who sat like Kalindans and others who could relax in backed chairs. There were areas, in fact, with very different kinds of seats, including large ones that were basically stools or benches, and there was even an area that appeared to be an elongated children’s sand box. It was a compromise lounge, designed to meet the needs of various races who, she supposed, would be most likely to take this kind of ship.
The lounge itself appeared empty, and she began to worry that she’d caught the wrong ship. As nervous and ill at ease as she felt even if this were the right ship, she needed to find somebody and confirm that she was welcome aboard and heading in the right direction.
She was suddenly aware of some discomfort, but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It was as if the ship wasn’t a solid perch; things seemed to be moving, and in directions you weren’t supposed to move while standing on a solid floor.
She saw that ropes were strung along the sides near the windows, and down the middle of the lounge as well, so those who might have balance problems could hold onto something and pull themselves along. She felt she needed that herself.
Abruptly, she was aware that, in spite of the emptiness of the lounge, she was not alone. She could feel someone watching, sense it, but not what it was.
“Well, good morning to you, madam,” came a strange-sounding voice. She nearly jumped up in reflexive flight, something that would have been very messy even with the high ceiling. Instead she whirled around, expecting to see someone standing between the seats and benches, and then her senses urged her eyes upward.
She’d never been on a ship before, and now noticed some kind of decorative fixture in the center of the ceiling. It began to move, uncurling itself slowly from a nearly ball shape. It moved slowly, lazily, but something told her that it could move with deadly swiftness if it wanted to.
It was some sort of gigantic hairy spider.
“Oh, please do not be alarmed,” the creature said. “I’m sorry if I startled you, but my position up here is just as normal and comfortable to me as I suspect a cliffside rookery is to you. I’m just another passenger, and there are rules against passengers doing nasty things to other passengers anyway, even if I wanted to. I realize my form causes a fear reaction in some races, but I assure you that the Askoth are quite civilized, even if our evolutionary ancestry is a bit obvious. I assure you that I don’t live in some damp cave with a big web, but in a home with many amenities. My people even cultivate wine grapes and make excellent vintages.”
She recovered, but something deep down told her that this was not someone she should trust. It wasn’t the shape, it was the cold, calculating, and amused emotions the thing radiated. Still, she sensed no immediate danger.
“I’m sorry. It is not your form but the fact that I did not see you in here that upset me. I must remember that, from now on, I am the strange one.”
“Strange . . . ? Well, perhaps. I must admit that you are imposing in a most unexpected sense. In many cultures you would be thought of as a supernatural being, a divine spirit. Do all Amborans look like you?”
“No—that is, yes, or sort of, anyway. All females are winged, although I admit to having some aspects that are uncommon among my people. You know I am from Ambora but you do not know what Amborans are like?”
The Askoth was impressed that she’d caught that. Ignorance doesn’t mean stupidity, he reminded himself.
“We are off Ambora, and I watched you land in back. I doubted you could have come from anywhere else. Besides, there was a notice here that the ship would be picking up an Amboran passenger. It adds a few hours to the schedule and shortens the layovers in the next few ports to catch up.”
The creature was fully extended now, and slowly dropped down from the ceiling to the floor on a surprisingly thin single line which it then retracted. She wasn’t certain if it was created and then reingested or was some natural part of the thing, but it was slick.
“I’m sorry, again, for not introducing myself. I fear that my name is unpronounceable even using a translator, but we Askoth have names that are also somewhat descriptive, and that sometimes is understood, and in my case I’d prefer it wasn’t. I’ve always found it a bit embarrassing. So, taking the two sounds from the name that create a meaningless name most races can pronounce, I tell everyone to just call me Wally.”
She almost laughed at the silliness of the name, but retained control. Oddly, she sensed he was concealing something even with that long explanation, but that the bulk of it was true.
“Very well—Wally. I am called Jaysu.”
“A pleasure. Now that we have been properly introduced, I should tell you that I am something of a merchant, self-employed, and that I sell services that others find useful. It is a well-paying occupation.”
“What sort of services?” she asked him.
“Oh, I have a knack for recovering lost and stolen goods, doing negotiations, all sorts of things. It is a talent I have taken a lifetime to perfect. And you?”
“I am a priestess.”
“Indeed? And what is a member of the clergy doing traveling outside her own lands and away from her flock, if I may ask?”
She thought a moment. “I have no flock at the moment, but some believe that I may be able to render services that others find useful.”
“Indeed? Like what, if I may ask?”
“Oh, recovering some lost goods, doing negotiations, all sorts of things.”
Wally’s translator gave off the most eerie collection of sounds she’d ever heard. It took her a moment to realize that it was attempting to simulate laughter. And the big spider thing was amused. She could feel that.
“Touche, my dear! I believe we will get along famously. But, come! I will lead you to the purser so you can get settled on the ship. How far are you traveling?”
“Quite far,” she told him. “I haven’t looked it up on a map yet, but it will be a great journey for me.”
“All alone, in strange lands, amongst strange creatures, for your first big trip outside your homeland. It must be quite important, what you are doing.”
“I am assured that it is, and both my order and my prayers have directed my path. And a priestess, Sir Wally, is never alone!”
She decided not to mention the fact that others on her side were allegedly already on board. Let strangers find out things on their own, particularly if it was none of their business.
It was a grand ship in every sense, with huge public areas and high ceilings and plenty of insulated bulletproof “glass,” actually a kind of plastic, conveying an impression in most areas of a castle or a grandiose city. Still, she felt claustrophobic, more than she’d ever felt in Zone, where things were, if anything, more constricted. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was the rolling motion of the ship, or the throbbing of its powerful steam engines, or simply that it was not designed for those who flew.
The purser was a Kuall, a weasel-like creature with a long snout and round red eyes that seemed to be scanning a panorama rather than focusing on her. His feet were identical to his apelike hands, and the fact that he wore a black and gold braided uniform over his short brown furry body made him look more menacing than comical. Or was she seeing menace everywhere now?
The purser checked his lists, nodded, and said, “Yes, yes. We were expecting you. Glad you made it. We have an outside cabin for you on the top deck forward. Not much ship’s motion there, plenty of air.”
“What do you mean by an ‘outside’ cabin?” she asked him.
“Oh, it means that the main entrance is off the deck to the outside rather than inside, such as down those corridors there. It is possible to exit inside via a second door, but it is not the main entrance and it is usually kept secured so you have some room in there. Useful if the weather is really bad, though. Cabin U-12, up the stairs there or up any of the outer stairways from this deck and forward. We haven’t ever had an Amboran passenger before, I don’t think—nope nope. No Amborans, so we had to guess a bit. Winged folk usually don’t use beds, so we put in a sand and rock box. If it is not good enough, let me know and we will see what we can do. Illumination is generally from pressurized oil lamps. You need only turn them up or down to get more or less light. More practical since two-thirds of our voyages are through no tech and semitech regions. Open buffet is forward on this deck all the way. If you are hungry, go anytime. If they have nothing you can eat, then tell them what you need. There has never been a race we could not somehow accommodate.”
He said it all like the practiced speech it was, but also with some undisguised pride. If the rest of the crew was like the purser, she knew they loved their ship.
“Any luggage?” the purser asked her.
“Oh—no. I carry what little I require with me here. There is nothing else.”
“Good, good. Come, then, I will take you up and show you the room. Nothing much else to do right now anyway. No stops for two days plus, nope nope. Come come, please.”
The huge spiderlike creature said, “Oh, please go. There are only so many upper class passengers aboard at the moment, so we shall be unable to avoid one another. Get oriented, relax, and we’ll speak again.”
She couldn’t shake the feeling she’d had before—that Wally was concealing something, perhaps a lot of things, and that he was no friend of hers—but she did not feel a direct threat from the Askoth, only some potential trouble down the line.
The steward took a large key, came around from behind his desk and said, “Follow me, please please.” He then went to the sliding doors amidships and opened them casually, stepping out onto the breezy and still chilly outside deck. She followed, glad to get out into the air even if it was less than ideal weather.
As she walked outside, though, she saw and sensed a great hex boundary rise in front of them, and then the ship went through it.
Abruptly, the wind died to virtually nothing at all, the skies turned a deep and cloudless blue, the temperature shot up and it became very hot. Just as startling, she felt a whole range of machines aboard the great vessel suddenly come to life. Her faith said that all things contained spirits with some measure of power, answerable to the gods of their particular element. She now felt a whole new set of powerful presences all around her on the ship even though nothing about the ship itself seemed to change.
The sure-footed purser noted her startled reaction. “This is Cobo,” he told her. “Very different. High-tech but all water. People here water breathers, yep yep. Live deep down, not sure what they are but they got some high-tech stuff. We talk talk to them on our sonargraphic radios, we do. Nice folks, whatever they are, so they say.”
The only wind now was from the movement of the ship, but, oddly, the ship was picking up speed. The engines didn’t seem to change, but the throbbing got louder. Perhaps some high-tech gizmos aided it in speeding across this otherwise featureless sea while they were in the high-tech region. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be down there, breathing water and probably cut off from the sun. Would there even be colors? Would they see like she saw? And how did they use this high-tech power without getting themselves fried by it? Even she knew from somewhere that water and electricity didn’t mix.
It was something she probably would never know or understand, and that was all right. The world was full of mysteries beyond solution or understanding, and as a priestess, she had accepted the limits of not being a god.
“You’re getting used to the ship, yep yep,” the purser noted approvingly. “Good balance, walking with the motion. That’s the way to do it. You will do fine. Most fliers do. All balance, yep yep. Some of the others, they can’t take it. Get sick, stay sick. Awful messy, yep yep.”
“There are other flying races?” It had never occurred to her that there might be. Then she remembered that the funny little lizard thing was supposedly a flier, too. She couldn’t see how, without feathers, but she accepted it.
“Yep yep. Ochoans common ’round this part of the ocean, but we get lots. Yaxas, pretty big wings like butterflies, many more. Most races don’t fly, but a fair number do.”
“Most walk along the ground like you,” she surmised, finding memories of giant butterfly creatures somewhere in the back of her mind as well. From where? she wondered. She had no memory of actually seeing them, yet she felt she must have.
“Nope nope,” the Kuall replied. “Most swim. More water than land on this world, on most worlds where ones like us could live, so they say.”
She followed him up a broad metallic stairway to the next deck after staving off the temptation to fly up and meet him at the top. Too many ropes and stuff around, although from the deck she could easily get off the ship if she had to. It would be getting back on that would present problems.
The decks were wide, designed to accommodate the needs of a variety of physical forms. There were also lifeboats along both sides of the ship, set so they blocked no views from the decks but could be stepped into by even the bulkiest of creatures. The open ocean was still a dangerous place, particularly in the less than high-tech regions, when there was no visibility beyond the living lookouts perched on porches two-thirds of the way up the masts fore and aft.
She saw the forward lookout position being vacated by two creatures, both of whom looked insectlike and simply walked down the side of the broad mast, one after the other. She found such multiracial crews amazing; it seemed odd that races so different could live and work together in these close quarters, considering how alien they were from one another. She was still getting used to those she’d seen who were also thinking creatures like the Amborans, and now this ship showed an amazing degree of interdependence without, possibly, any of them even thinking about it. It was a revelation to her, far more than what she’d seen in Zone, where each race kept a little bit of itself in a separate compartment for convenience.
The purser led her to an area, just before the wide bridge, that housed the great ship’s control center. It spanned the forward area deck on both sides as well as creating a separate building of its own atop the upper deck roof. He stopped at a large, dull red door and, with the dramatically large bronze key, slipped it in the lock and turned until there was a click. Then he opened the door, which swung in rather than slid to one side, checked it, and gestured for her to approach.
“If you have no luggage or valuables, then you have no need to lock the door, nope nope,” the Kuall told her. “Just make sure the door is shut with a click or a clunk. If you want privacy or to keep it locked, get this key from me and use it, then lock up when you leave and bring it back to me or my assistants at the desk. No need to carry it around, maybe lose it, nope nope.”