Two days after the battle with the mind flayers, the crew had all been healed by Aaren, and they’d cataloged the damage done to the Sky Hawk. Elric has ascertained the undamaged condition of the skengine on what was left of the mind flayer ship and had it transferred to the Sky Hawk along with the mind flayer’s life chest and star engine. He’d also managed to salvage the ship’s wheel and other controls. The sale of those valuable items would bring the Knights many thousands of gold pieces. He’d even recovered Horace’s sword from the wreckage. Naturally, the slender mage was feeling rather proud of himself as the Knights assembled in Aaren’s cabin for a strategy meeting.
“Our newest passenger,” Jon inclined his head at Altman who nodded back, “went over the ship with me and agrees with my assessment of her condition.”
“Why is a ship always called ‘her’?” Katrina interjected.
Jon ignored her and continued, “It’s as bad as we feared. We hit the mind flayer ship at the wrong angle. That was my fault.”
His friends raised their voices in protest but Horace overrode them with sheer volume. “Wrong!” Everyone winced. “None of us has any experience with this stuff. We’re all brand new at it. I think we’re lucky to be alive so quit beating yourself up.”
“Yeah. That’s my job,” Mira grinned wickedly.
Jon gave in. “Fine. But that doesn’t change our situation. We’re in bad shape.” The mood in the room turned grim and everyone sat forward to listen. “The stump of their ram penetrated our hull just aft of the sterncastle and ripped out all the rigging gears that control the ailerons and the rudder. Besides that, several catapult loads hit us in the forward plating and weakened the longitudinal support beams. Then, when we hit, those beams gave out and the ship was crunched together like an accordion.”
Marak frowned uncertainly. “Like a what?”
“A squeezebox,” Katrina told him. “Bards use ‘em sometimes, but they jam too easily.”
“And right now,” said Jon, “the Sky Hawk looks like a squeezebox that’s jammed shut.”
“Which means?” Horace asked for all of them.
“Which means it maneuvers like a wounded duck,” Garrick snorted, from his position by the door. “Even a simple turn would be a major effort, let alone anything complicated. The best we can do is a straight line, and even at that, we wobble like crazy.”
Mira around in alarm. “Does that mean that we’ll go off course at system speed?” she asked, her eyes crinkled with concern.
Aaren and Elric shook their heads in unison with Altman. “No,” said the priest, “banking and system speeds are unaffected. The hyper-jump won’t be affected either. As long as the ship is in one piece we can get to wherever we want.”
“We just can’t maneuver once we get there,” Elric added. “We can cover millions of leagues in the blink of an eye, but the last couple thousand cubits might take us all day. Or worse.” His euphoria over his recent accomplishments was quickly receding in the face of the reality of the Sky Hawk’s condition.
“Or worse is right,” Garrick growled. “The Sky Hawk ain’t that agile with her rigging intact, let alone torn to shreds like it is.”
“I'm afraid he’s quite correct,” Altman said. “Galleons are workhorses, known more for their utility than agility. Their maneuvering is sluggish under the best of circumstances. Damaged the way it is now . . .” He trailed off with a shrug.
Taanen spoke up from his position as Marak’s constant shadow. “Better not let the men hear that, they’re already pretty shook up. If they hear the Sky Hawk is dead in the water they’ll mutiny for sure.”
“She’s not dead in the water,” Aaren protested. “Just wounded.”
“I’m not sure the men will see it that way.”
“He’s right,” Marak added. “There’s always some bright lad who thinks he can do a better job than you. He may have all the wit and charm of a dead goblin, but if things get bad enough, the rest of them will follow him like sheep to a slaughter.” He looked to Altman for support.
“Absolutely. I’ve seen it hundreds of times,” the navigator assured them, flicking invisible dust off his ornate cloak. “It can turn very nasty, very quickly.”
Listening to this, Aaren felt as though the world was crumbling around him. The fact they were thousands, perhaps millions of leagues from the nearest world did nothing to reassure him. It made it worse. If they were at, or on, some world, any world, with solid ground under his feet he would be a thousand times more confident than he was floating in space in the middle of nowhere. For a moment he wished he hadn’t taken the position of Captain.
Altman wasn’t finished. “Mutinies can be very hazardous to your health. We should take precautions immediately.”
“Now you’re talking,” Horace enthused, always eager for a fight. “Let’s get busy right away.”
“But we’re still lost,” Katrina objected. “First of all, we have to find out where we are.”
“Fiddle, pish, and tosh,” Altman said pompously. “I know exactly where we are, that’s no problem.”
“You see?” crowed Horace. “It’s no problem. The real problem is stopping the mutiny.”
“What mutiny?” Marak said hotly. “We were talking about a possible mutiny. There’s no reason to think one’s already underway.”
Jon angrily threw a sheaf of papers on the deck. “Will you stop talking about mutiny?” he snarled at them. “The ship is the problem, not those idiotic men!”
“Watch it,” the caravan master said. “Those are still my men you know. Be careful how you talk about them.”
“Or what?” sneered the rogue. “You’ll tell them to desert?”
“I didn't say ‘or what’,” Marak returned, a dangerous note in his voice. “But if you don’t watch it, I just might. Remember, I hired you.”
“Oh, another bean counter,” Horace sneered disparagingly.
Taanen leaped up from his chair and whipped out his sword.
“Apologize to my master . . . now!” he said menacingly, the tip of his sword pricking Horace’s throat.
After a moment’s hesitation, Garrick rose and moved to back up Taanen’s move with his own blade. Marak smiled with oily satisfaction. “You see,” he started to say, then stopped in stunned shock as Horace flung himself backward in his chair, rolling as it hit the deck and drawing his recovered sword. Even as he sprang up, Aaren was on his feet, casting paralysis on Taanen.
“HOLD!” he thundered and Marak’s second-in-command froze as Art settled over him like a shroud. Elric was also casting Art and a net of crackling energy struck Garrick, pinning him back against the wall.
The bosun’s sword dropped from his nerveless hand, but before it could touch the deck, Horace’s glowing blade was at Marak’s throat. Beside it was Jon’s dagger and two more swords, one each from Katrina and Mira.
Marak gagged in disbelief. Desperately he sought Altman’s eyes. “Help me,” he whispered imploringly.
The navigator shook his head deliberately. “No thanks. I’ve seen adventurers in action before you know. I’ve no wish to die this day.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “I think I’ll sit this one out if you don’t mind.”
Horace smiled coldly, death in his eyes. “You were about to say?” His sword caressed the man’s throat.
Marak swallowed. “Nothing, really . . . I was just talking.”
Katrina’s green eyes narrowed. “A man who treated me like his own daughter once said careless words could get me killed. ‘Just talking’ is about to get you killed.” She poked her sword at him for emphasis.
The brief flurry of action had broken Aaren out of his funk. He felt himself returning to normal, with the new realization that the weight of command, once picked up could not be lightly set down again.
“Quit baiting him, Katrina. Get some rope and tie him up; the others too,” he added, indicating Garrick and Taanen with a jerk of his head.
Something in Aaren’s voice warned the bard not to question his orders. She put away her sword and hurried to the nearest storage locker for a coil of rope. Within minutes the three men were bound hand and foot. The Knights relaxed and sheathed their weapons.
Jon looked searchingly at Aaren. “Now what?”
“We put them on trial for mutiny,” he said sternly. The others gasped at him, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Altman smile in anticipation. Something about that smile made him uneasy and he saw Mira staring suspiciously at him too. Thinking back over the argument that had preceded the fight, he slowly came to the reluctant conclusion the navigator had instigated the whole thing. It had taken very few words, a little here, a little there, and a mild argument had suddenly turned violent. It was almost as if he’d done it on purpose, just for fun.
Altman caught him staring at him and returned his gaze blandly. “Is something wrong, Captain?”
“You tell me,” he said slowly. “Why did you say we should take precautions against a mutiny?”
“Why, the condition of the ship . . .”
“Is bad,” he interrupted him, “but not enough to warrant concern over a mutiny.”
Horace was watching them with a puzzled expression. “What are you talking about, Aaren? You’re acting like he’s a criminal all the sudden.”
Aaren ignored his friend to focus on Altman. “You deliberately started an argument,” he accused him, “then stayed back and let them take the heat for it.” He gestured at the three prisoners.
Altman’s face held a wounded expression. “My good Captain! How can you accuse me of such a dastardly deed? You cut me to the quick,” he exclaimed in sorrowful tones.
“He can accuse you for the same reason I can,” Mira said in icy tones. “All you had to do was emphasize this problem, disregard that one, a word here, a word there, and presto, instant argument. After that, you just sat back and watched the show.”
Katrina and Horace exchanged startled looks, and Elric was frowning thoughtfully at the navigator. Even Jon and his prisoners stopped glaring at each other to follow the conversation.
“But my good man, I was merely giving you the benefit of my long years in space, my broad experience with men in tight positions, my wealth of knowledge concerning ships, and the sailors who man them. I was trying to help the ship’s company, not stir up trouble.”
Aaren snorted and shook his head. “I don’t believe it for a moment. If you were trying to help then why did we wind up with a fight on our hands almost immediately?” he demanded. “If that’s your idea of help, then the Lord of Light have mercy if you decide to oppose us.” He saw something flash in Altman’s eyes at his words and instantly regretted them. He heard Mira suck in her breath and knew that she shared his sudden concern.
Altman rose with an unexpected flourish and Aaren felt his stomach clench in preparation for another battle.