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The Desert Crystals – Part 25: Ghosts of Dawn

Part 25 – Ghosts of Dawn

Desert Crystals 3

His bunk had become his refuge. The childhood appeal of his hammock fort and the close darkness had reached out through the years and seized him. For all his mature years and gentlemanly ways, Guldwych Ryme still found himself huddled beneath the thin blanket. It was a poor shield from the world. Not thick enough to block the light that poured through the porthole between the opposing bunk and his own hiding place. Not thick enough to block out the sounds of the airship’s crew screaming as it plummeted from the sky. He supplemented the shadowing sheet by squeezing his eyes shut. Just as a child he had kept out the cold and angry fights between his parents he now closed out the shouting of skymates and the creak of wood and the ratcheting cracks of the wings sweeping up and down.

Captain Flame’s actions had profoundly shocked the rotund academic. In principle he knew that there were pirates and had read accounts of such in the Meridional newspapers. At least one colleague had reported losing valuable cargoes from far off cities and digs to accidents of the air (as the conservative language of the insurance houses had it), as well as the more common accident of nature – the beasts of the Northern Continent. Ryme’s heart raced and he sweated a thin grey dismay that left his clothes and blanket rank with the scent. He feared he might be having a heart attack, save that he had thought he might be having a heart attack for some hours now, since watching Flame put a bullet in the other ship’s captain.

The venture to challenge Rosenhatch Traverstorm and his ego-blushed expedition was feeling rather hasty as he lay curled in the cabin of a pirate ship. Not just hasty, but downright foolish. He could have just as easily booked passage on a larger vessel, though he’d have had to wait a few weeks for departure and still longer to arrive. The haste, he reminded himself, had been necessary, to ensure he could intercept the idiot before he got another exploration team killed. That didn’t feel quite as important as it had done yesterday. But he could have waited – even until Traverstorm had returned in order to denounce him (though whatever lives the maverick academic were to expend would have already been lost by then).

Ryme’s mind happened to be one of those for whom personal responsibility and blame slide smoothly from the self and pool insidiously on others. The nature of Flame’s crew and vessel had been obvious from the start – how many captains threaten a paying passenger before take off? Nonetheless, that had been Ryme’s first encounter with the bold and dangerous captain. But Eslie had been confident of the captain and The Sky Viper’s ability to put Ryme ahead of Traverstorm. Possibly Ryme’s trust in his colleague, Eslie Chem was less well founded that he had thought – had the man known he was booking passage with a band of outlaws and murderers? Surely the need for haste had not necessitated that they associate with such people.

But then, as Guldwych pondered further (accepting any line of reasoning in which he was not directly at fault), the nature of his relationship with Chem became a source of consternation in itself. For several years the man had provided a discreet, helpful and relatively inexpensive service… in regard of whatever need Ryme had had. Precisely how they had met, and become so entwined was lost in a fog of professorial handovers, favours, the subtle puncturing of reputations and loaded gifts. All Ryme could be sure of was that he had grown increasingly to depend on the slight fellow – seemingly omniscient, endlessly capable, always available. Yet Ryme had seen little of Eslie Chem (the only man he knew on the vessel) since they boarded, which was disconcerting in itself – the Viper was a small enough space for eight crew, the captain and two passengers to see more of each other than most people could handle.

Ryme wrestled with his mounting anxiety while outside Eslie Chem leaned against the cabin door, listening to Guldwych’s panting sighs and choked sobs. He drew a deep breath for himself and knocked hard on the wooden doorframe. Within, Ryme jerked upright under his blanket, only its thin cushion preventing another concussion against the upper bunk. He cautiously pulled the blanket down over his face until he resembled an anaemic grub emerging from its pupa. It was that sweating picture of dishevelment that greeted Chem as he poked his head around the door.

“Hello there Professor. How are you?”

Ryme’s desire to blame Chem for his current state fought with his need for a familiar face to talk to.

“Hello Eslie. Well, I don’t feel terribly good, if I’m to be entirely honest about it.”

Chem thought he looked appalling – as if Ryme had been the one shot in the chest. “Oh dear. The captain was concerned, as her passenger, that you might not be feeling well.”

Ryme shuddered violently. “Oh, well that’s kind of her to consider me-”

“Since of course, sickness while on board is a serious matter,” Eslie added with a careful frown, “Any hint of contagion is to be dealt with severely, and swiftly.”

If anything, Ryme contrived to look even paler and more sickly.

“The usual course of events Professor, begins with an inspection by the ship’s doctor. Obviously it’s a mate’s duty to prevent their airmates from falling ill.”

Ryme managed a weak “oh”.

“I’ll look in on you later then.” Chem managed to withhold a sneer as he closed the door behind him.

The portly academic sank back into his bunk, realising that it might not be the refuge he craved for much longer.

Next Week: Part 26 – Spirals

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