The tension on the Sky Hawk the next day was thick enough to cut with a dull knife. The crew soon realized something was amiss, but none of the Knights would talk. Marak and Taanen weren’t saying anything either. Garrick was pensive and withdrawn, speaking only when spoken to, and then only in monosyllables. Only Altman appeared normal, talkative, and eye-catching as usual in his brilliant attire.
The attitude soon spread throughout the entire crew and tempers grew short. An argument that should have ended amicably turned bloody and Aaren’s healing powers were called into use. Instead of sobering them, the feud served only to intensify the hard feelings and heighten the tension to a nerve-racking level. After that, every little incident turned the screws another notch tighter until the entire ship was ready to explode.
It was past noon and they were still trying to reach Beorn’s. The damaged steering mechanisms made it impossible to aim the Sky Hawk precisely, with the result that when they dropped back down to slower speeds they found that they had overshot their target. They then had to painfully turn the ship around and try again. Each time they came a little closer, bracketing the asteroid, but it was a slow, time-consuming process that grated on everyone’s already raw nerves.
From her position at the ship’s wheel, Mira watched the crew struggling with the damaged equipment. She saw Garrick nod at something Jon said and reach for one of the speaking tubes.
“We’re ready, Captain,” he said curtly.
“Thank you, bosun.” Aaren turned to her. “Try it again.”
Altman had known where they were; that much of what he had told them was true. He’d also gotten them there, almost, just as he’d promised. He’d also kept his word about teaching them the fundamentals of navigating a starship, imparting a wealth of knowledge to Katrina. Her pen fairly flew over the pages of her journal trying to keep up with the flood of information. But whether the rest of his outlandish claims were true was another matter entirely. His tales about Heraup were enough to make anyone skeptical.
He said that Heraup had once been a solid planet that was torn apart during the Chaos Wars at the end of the First Age, which they already knew. Now, most of it that wasn’t strewn out around the sun in a ring was a giant ball of air, larger than Gaia, with tens of thousands of asteroids orbiting through its turbulent winds. Some looked like miniature planets, others were spheres of deep blue water. But from there, Altman’s tales took a bizarre turn.
He claimed each asteroid had its own gravity, plants, and animals. He said the dominant races were aerial races of various kinds and lizard men. Dangerous creatures abounded on all of them but it was the lizard men that gave Mira the most trouble. The same hideous beasts that slew her mother were one of the leading races on Heraup. According to Altman though, they weren’t the same mindless ravagers as the ones she knew. These lizard men had near-human intelligence and morals. The navigator explained that some of them were paragons of virtue and goodness while others were rotten scum, fit only for the hangman’s noose, just like people. They had developed a semi-advanced civilization, empires rose and fell, business was conducted, and history advanced. The only thing keeping them bursting out to the stars was their lack of starships.
Mira wasn’t sure if she believed it or not. Using Art, Aaren had determined that Altman wasn’t lying, but she still wasn’t sure. What if the navigator had some method of defeating Aaren’s magic with his own? He claimed to have lived to become an old man magically restored to youth and now he looked well past middle age, which would put him over three hundred. Who knew what tricks he might have learned in that time?
Altman’s voice at her elbow interrupted her musings. “A five-count at full banking speed should put us almost directly in front of Heraup – assuming the ship’s heading is correct. All it takes is for us to be off by a tiny fraction and we could wind up further away than we are now.”
“I’m well aware of that, navigator,” she replied acidly. “Stop trying to impress us with your knowledge. It’s getting tiresome.” She turned before he could answer and pressed the white diamond on the hub of the wheel. Power came on and she pressed the green emerald to trigger banking speed or maneuvering speed; she was still trying to decide which term she preferred. There was no sensation of movement, and against the vastness of the stars, no landmarks slipping past to indicate they were moving, but they were automatically moving at the remarkable speed of 150 leagues per hour. She reached over to the handle on the left side of the wheel. It was the acceleration lever for maneuvering speed and was topped with a green emerald. She shoved it all the way forward.
“We’re now moving at 300 leagues per hour,” Altman said in a professorial voice.
Again, there was no sensation of movement, but distant Heraup abruptly began growing closer. It swelled in front of them with deceptive slowness. She knew full well how fast it was really approaching. If they misjudged and ran into one of its asteroids, there wouldn’t be anything left of them. She forced herself to count slowly and methodically, her hand hovering over the white diamond on the wheel. She said, “Five!” and slapped her hand down on the diamond. The power went off, the handle popped back to its neutral position, and the Sky Hawk slammed to a halt – drifting lazily in space before the looming giant.
Mira let out her breath, not realizing until she did that she’d been holding it. Looking over at Aaren, she saw him doing the same thing. They exchanged a shaky smile.
He raised his voice to carry over the whole ship. “Good work, everyone, I think we’re at Heraup.”
“If you’ll look off to our port bow about ten degrees up, you’ll see our destination.”
He turned his head, searching the sky for the floating asteroid Altman said was the space station. The gigantic, looming, blue immensity of Heraup occupied more than three-quarters of the sky. Whirling specks, islands of earth and water just like Altman said, floated everywhere in that titanic orb. Dazzling shafts of light rebounded from islands of water, blinding the eyes and announcing their presence from thousands of leagues away.
He squinted against the glare, trying not to be over-awed by the sheer size and beauty of the airy planet, looking for the space station Altman promised would be their salvation. “I see it!” he almost shouted when he spotted the dull asteroid hanging in space below the curve of the strange giant overhead.
His glad cry was picked up by the crew on deck and they danced an impromptu victory jig. They laughed and hugged each other, all the tension suddenly vanishing like mist on a hot summer day. Their fear of being lost in the vastness of space fell away from them. They had actually set out for a destination and reached it! No more drifting aimlessly, waiting for something to happen. They had found their way across the void once, they could do it again.
He allowed them a few more minutes of celebration then picked up the main speaking tube. “Okay boys and girls, settle down. We still have several leagues to go and the Sky Hawk isn’t exactly cooperating so let’s get to it.”
It took several minutes before they settled down and got back to work but when they did, it was with a new will that hadn’t been there before. Having their destination in sight lifted their spirits as no amount of promises or money could do. Although it took them another three hours to steer the wounded Sky Hawk into the space station, they didn’t complain.
Large, inflated tubes of rubber squeaked noisily as the Sky Hawk finally nosed her way into an empty berth and lurched to a halt. Swarming gnomes and halflings grabbed at guy-lines thrown overboard, tying them down with the deft moves of long practice. The space station’s orbit was taking it around the backside of Heraup and dusk was beginning to fall as the planet’s shadow swept over them. It’s nature made it impossible for it to block all the suns ray, resulting in a strange, ever-shifting but beautiful twilight.
Mira saw the Knights gathering on the main deck and moved to Aaren’s side to join them. Someone had already lowered a gangplank over the side and he led them down it to the wooden dock.
“Man, smell that air!” Horace exclaimed gratefully. “Like it just came off a clear mountain!”
The rest of them nodded, it did smell good. It made a nice change from the Sky Hawk’s smelly atmosphere, polluted from its contact with the fumes from the burning mind flayer ship. The life chest onboard was cleaning the air as it worked but it was a slow process.
A steady clomping noise attracted their attention and they turned to the small group approaching them. Leading the way like an overdressed drum major, was an armored dwarf flanked by four humans, also heavily armored. Behind the humans were gnomes, halflings, and half-elves. All of them carried their weapons with the ease of long familiarity. They spread out as they came closer, stopping until only the dwarf was left out in front.
Aaren gave a slight bow. “Black Beorn?”
The dwarf’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “Aye, that be me name.” He waved a gauntleted hand at the Sky Hawk “Took ye long enough ta steer yer way in. Some of me men started taking wagers on ye.”
Aaren flushed. “Our ship needs a few repairs.”
A titter of laughter ran through the assembled gnomes and halflings. A faint smile creased Beorn’s craggy face under his jet black beard. “Ye don’t say?” His eyes shifted to someone behind Aaren and his easy manner changed abruptly. “What are ye doing here?”
Aaren and his companions turned to see Altman strolling down the ramp to the dock. “Beorn, Beorn. Is that any way to treat an old friend?”
“Friend? Friend? FRIEND?” Beorn’s voice got louder with each repetition. “Ye fancy fops wouldn’t know the meaning of the word if it came up and bit ye in the rear end!” His face was red with anger.
Altman’s easy smile faltered. “Now, now. I think you’re over-reacting.”
“I’ll show ye over-reacting, ye double-talking meddler! Git out! And take yer sniveling friends with ye!”