Chapter 3 – First Necessary Lessons
They find an all-night shop that caters to the less fussy clientele. Old Van War uniforms smelling of mildew are stuffed in dirty barrels along one wall. On shelves and hanging from odd-shaped racks one can find a variety of tops and pants. Boots are piled under shelves, few of them mated, some with suspicious dark splotches on them indicating they were pulled off victims of foul play and flogged to whomever would take them for a flasher-1, enough to buy a bottle of rotgut liquor. Zelleus sets the boy to look through the place and pick up what he can find suitable to wear aboard the ship. Choices completed, Zelleus pays and they leave, the boy holding his roll of new clothes as if they were the most precious thing he’d ever held.
At the edge of the warren Thane guides Zelleus to an underground rooming house he knew about that had plenty of rooms to let. Zelleus chooses one with a secondary emergency tunnel exit. He pays in advance and once in the room, barricades the door with a heavy steel chair while ordering Thane to wash himself and change. For a long time the water runs. He can hear soft moans of pleasure coming from the bath area and even a gasp of surprise. After a long time Thane emerges in his new clothes, the rags carefully tied together in a bundle. His long hair is tied neatly in a thick pony tail, giving the boy a clean, ascetic look. His large blue eyes are intent on Zelleus. He goes to stash his bundle under his bed.
“No Thane. You will not keep those rags. They stink. Place them by the tunnel exit near the vent. In the morning we will throw them in one of the burning barrels. I do not want to take any of your past with you. Inside yourself, in there – he points to the boy’s head and heart – you can keep what you are until you develop into a new person. Then you will leave the old behind, not because I say so, but because you will know you are a better person for it, yes?” The boy shrugs and does as he’s told, then drops on the bed and promptly falls into a dreamless sleep.
The night is uneventful but to be safe Zelleus takes the emergency tunnel exit out of the rooming house in the early morning. At the first intersection in the warren he collapses the tunnel leading to the house.
The boy looks shocked. “Why Zelleus?”
“Because my lad I heard noises and eager voices back there and it’s too early in the morning for such. Our landlord is getting a handful of heavy flashers from some who want to get even with me. I have many enemies and they have the distinction of hating me without reserve. So I’m always careful in port. . . and also in space. As below, so above boy. Remember that. You can be ten light years from this place and encounter the same cretin who tried to slit your throat today. Life is like that, see? You can never outrun your enemy, your nemesis or your fate. All you can do is become better at what and who you are. Develop a superior mind to face them and defeat them, or bend them to your own needs. Insist on working and living only with the best– not necessarily the strongest, fastest or smartest. Just the best at what it is they do. My crew, though you will certainly find many of them odd, is the best. Because of that it is easier to be the best commander in any situation involving similar type minds.
“Of course logic dictates, and we suspect, there are alien minds in the universe far more advanced than our own. I have not met any, as yet, at least that I have been able to become aware of as such, but then we haven’t gone very far within our own galaxy, and what we have we spend most of our time fighting over and consolidating. Soon, I swear, I’m going to break through the imposed blockade and go exploring. We’ll talk about that, hm?”
Thane shakes his head affirmatively and suddenly the floor seems to rush up to meet them. The open corkscrew contraption is what passes as elevators on much of Pallarti and because of its lesser gravity no one gets really hurt, even if they fall off. They are propelled upward and with a quick lean, jump on a rotating platform. Zelleus grabs the boy’s shoulder to steady him and propels him headlong through an opening in a stone wall. He jumps off on the second turn of the platform and they are in the town’s industrial area, not far from the space dock that remains partially obscured by yellow fog, a combination of sea fog, smog and pre-dawn coloring.
The sun is just rising, chasing Pallarti’s large yellow moon from the sky, and all remains quiet. Zelleus, taking his long strides towards the dock, locates a burning garbage barrel on the way and points. Thane following behind with some difficulty, having to run and walk, run and walk, throws his bundle of rags in the barrel. He cannot help but look apprehensively as the bundle catches fire and begins to smoke. Then he runs after his captain.
At the edge of the space port, Zelleus stops and sends a coded signal. Various sensors come to life, marking a safe path of intermittent flashes for him and the boy to walk through in single file.
“Run! We have less than six minutes to cover the distance. Run!” A test, of course. They have enough time to walk it, but he wants to see Thane’s reaction. The boy runs fast and was about to pass Zelleus who firmly holds him back. “OK Thane. That’s fast enough. You cannot pass me or you will be blown to bits. Stay behind me. When we get to the checkpoint, I’ll sign you in.”
“Yes Zelleus. Thank you.”
“Now you must call me captain. See how things shift? How you have to adapt, moment by moment to those shifts, or changes? Always be ready to respond to the unexpected. Saves your life, but more, makes it that much more fascinating. It’s what you don’t know but your mind suspects that makes life worthwhile, Thane, for that is what you want to know.”
As they jog along the marked path, Zelleus continues his explanations. “And one more thing: no matter how difficult life becomes never allow yourself the false comfort of feeling sorry for yourself. Remember that life never feels sorry for itself: it just goes on and if it can’t go over, it goes under, or it piles up until it overflows, but it continues. What to us appears to die is simply life changing forms, always changing. Are you alive Thane? Do you want to be a full partner with life? In life? Then you must prove that to yourself day after day, moment by moment. You must.”
Zelleus clears his new crew member through security with a hastily concocted family history linked to the great houses. Such a one, however strange or distant the relationship, would get consideration and quick approval in most docking facilities, or in encounters with patrol ships. During the questioning and registration Thane remains absolutely silent, observing his surroundings and Zelleus’ performance wide-eyed and disbelieving. How easy it seems for Zelleus to fool the security agents, their droids and their computers! This violates everything Thane had been led to believe about the mental superiority and power of these people. Yes, he feels he is losing himself in Zelleus’ wake. But though he is afraid, he does not mind. This crazy, radical change represents the greatest hope he’s ever known. And soon to actually step aboard a starship? Not as a work slave but as crew? And to have a powerful protector. Do what you’re told? He can do that. It’s how he survived until now.
He sees the battered Blue Dragon surrounded by a brilliant mantle of light emanating from the ceiling of the great hangar. Argonium gas, spread thinly over the plasteel and fired from fusion-driven generators built deep below Pallarti’s hard rocky mantle glows like cool sunlight over the whole place leaving hardly a shadow anywhere. Working droids on hydraulic scaffolds and on “giraffes” — long slim cranes arching gracefully over the ship — equipped with sensors, test the integrity of the hull or float along the skin in a zero-g field, patching the ship’s skin as they go, leaving a smooth, gleaming surface in their wake.
She may be old and battered but to Thane she is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He feels tears coming on and wipes his eyes. This beautiful blue starship, in a few minutes, would become his home, the only real home he’s ever known.
He hesitantly breaks into Zelleus’ silence as the tall dark man also surveys the craft, but not with any emotional or romantic attachment. He watches the droids, knowing how much each move is costing him and not trusting to their programming. One mistake and he can bargain the contractor down a full ten percent. ‘Come on you bastards, make a mistake,’ he thinks to himself, smiling. Ten percent: enough for a full load of fuel for the massive torch drive.
“Sorry captain, but is it possible to go aboard now?”
“You’d go aboard with all that noise and vibration? Any idea what that sounds like in there? I have a private suite reserved in the living quarters. Wouldn’t you rather go there?”
“No captain. I’m afraid you’ll change your mind and send me back. I think if I were on board, found my berth, settled in, then I’d be sure to launch with you. I cannot go back there.” And he points to the city beyond the hangar’s walls.
“Fear huh? Well, that’s a good thing. You aren’t cocky. I hate cocky bastards. Now listen good Thane. I’m a man of my word. I will repeat only this once: you are now ship’s boy. You are a full crew member, part of a necessary complement. I need you on this next trip, boy. Now listen to this also: This is the last time I’m calling you “boy” understand? To the crew of the Blue Dragon including myself, you are Thane. You are no longer a homeless waif. I entered your “pedigree” in the computers as the bastard son of a member, to remain anonymous of course, of the Van Dradden family. You will be known as Thane Van Dradden. Learn that name well. It is yours. Once we are in space I will code in all necessary information so that when we dock again you will be in the computers as Thane Van Dradden for all to see. . . and weep over, hah!” Zelleus clicks his tongue in a satisfied way.
Thane goes to answer but Zelleus cuts him short, “Not now, not yet. I want you to get to know me, my crew, my ship and my purpose before you decide to thank me for this particular heavy intrusion into your life. One more thing: not a word of this subterfuge to anyone, understood? You are Thane Van Dradden, rebel son, who chose to sail with the Blue Dragon in search of adventure. You paid me a very substantial sum of money for the privilege to serve aboard this ship. That’s the story.”
“Yes captain. Is it proper for a crew member to thank one’s captain even if others may overhear?”
“Yes Thane, that it is. And a good question, to boot.”
“Thank you sir. I will serve you. . . and if I have questions sir, I will ask them.”
Zelleus watches him as he turns once more to the ship and eyes it hungrily. Oh well, if he wants to be inside the drum while it is being played, let him.
- Flasher: local jargon for Pallarti (local) currency, coins or cubes of steel or plasteel in various denominations strictly for exchanges planet-side.
[end 3rd instalment]