I’ve been busy.
I haven’t been busy doing this, but I did finish it off the other day and figured what the heck, might as well put it up on the blog to show you I am still crawling ahead with the last couple of books in my Phase Two.
So here is the prologue to the second book in my Tales of the Always Night duology, semi-solidly entitled The Cursèd Playground.
As if interstellar travel wasn’t long and boring enough, the Captain had started holding status meetings once a week.
Galana would actually approve of the idea – sometimes she felt like she was the only crewmember who really cared about AstroCorps procedure and practices – if it managed in any way to improve efficiency or make a useful record of their findings so far. But the ACS Conch was not a large ship, and the six of them – well, the seven of them at the moment … okay, eight if you counted the computer, and you more or less had to at this point – spent most of their time together, so they all knew everything that could be raised in a status meeting before the meeting even happened. And between the Captain and the Chief Engineer, and with the well-intentioned but hopeless assistance of the ship’s Medical and Comms Officers, and the borderline malicious playfulness of their Tactical Officer and their guest … what with all that, the meetings really didn’t achieve much.
Galana had originally wondered if it was some way of livening things up, but they had plenty of games and social events and the meetings themselves – tangents and diversions notwithstanding – never really degenerated into enjoyable unrelated business. Then she’d begun to wonder if maybe their Captain was getting old, and starting to forget things, and was holding meetings as a way of keeping on top of it all. Humans could get that way, she’d read. But Captain Basil Hartigan was as sharp as ever, even if his impressively coiffed hair and sleek, bushy moustache had as much grey as black in them these days.
“What ho, morning all,” the Captain greeted everyone as they shuffled into his quarters and through to the comfortable lounge area. The ceiling here opened into a large observation dome, but since they were at relative speed at that moment and all there was to see was the depressing grey emptiness of ten-thousand-times-light-speed soft-space, he kept it closed. “How are we? Sit down, sit down, let’s get cracking, what? I’m sure we all have things we’d rather be doing. Now then, what’s our status?”
“Well, my goodness,” Devlin Scrutarius, Blaran Chief Engineer, consulted the data pad that he brought to the meetings solely for use as a comedy prop. “Where do I start?”
“At the bally start, Dev,” Hartigan said with a dynamic slap of his armchair-arm. “At the bally start.”
“Well, it all started when our fearsome Executive Officer, Commander Fen here, made a bet with this desperately pompous Molran ambassador named Kotan,” Devlin said, “that an AstroCorps crew could fly around the galaxy on a basic exploration and research tour. If she wins, he agreed to stop being a tedious Fleet sourcat and put his support behind the barmy notion that the Six Species are a union of … what’s the word … ” he consulted his pad again dramatically, “ … equals? No, that can’t be right … ”
“We don’t need to start this far back, or be this sarcastic,” Galana said without much hope.
“If she loses, Kotan will most likely do his best to tank AstroCorps and restore the Five Species to its glorious and dignified past, and let the humans go back to the Wild Empire they were before,” Devlin continued with relish. “Even worse, she’ll probably have to agree to become a Blaran, even though that’s clearly a promotion for a Molran so there’s no real way for her to lose this one.”
“Hear hear,” Hartigan approved. “But we’re still going to jolly well win.”
“You’re damn right we are, Cap’n,” Devlin agreed. “Anyway, Commander Fen joined up with us – that is, with you and me and the ACS Conch – before leaving Grand Boënnia. We flew to The Warm and picked up the good Doctor Bonjamin Bont, who was right in the middle of a very interesting experiment I’ve definitely understood every time she’s tried to tell me about it, where she was going to talk to that big old alien artefact any century now … ”
“That’s too accurate to really be hurtful,” Bonty conceded with a smile. The elderly Bonshoon, one of Galana’s oldest friends and her companion through AstroCorps Academy training, was highly skilled in various veterinary practices and so had become the Conch’s medical officer, but her true area of interest was the vast semi-living alien thing that everyone called The Warm. The giant artefact had been settled for centuries, and was home and research subject rolled into a single package.
“So, while we were at The Warm we also dropped by a water-filled Worldship that was just getting ready to dock,” Devlin went on.
“Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” Galana sighed.
“That was where we found Wicked Mary, who was just so nice her fellow Fergunak had locked her up,” Devlin went on.
“I take exception to that nice,” the small, silvery robotic giela that was Wicked Mary’s eyes, ears, voice and hands in the non-aquatic world spoke up from its position squatting near the end of one of the couches. “Come down to the Aquarium deck and I will eat you immediately.”
“I believe you,” Devlin said comfortably, and resumed his pointlessly in-depth summary. “Once we got to Declivitorion-On-The-Rim where the bet was officially set to start, we joined up with Chillybin.”
“Why are you like this?” Galana asked.
“I think it’s funny,” Chillybin, massive in her refrigerated freezer-suit, was squatting in a similar pose to the tiny giela. She unfolded her helmet and dropped a little chunk of frozen flavour-ice into her huge tusked maw, before closing the suit again.
“Why thank you, Chilly. Then, full of hope, we set out,” Devlin swept his upper pair of arms wide, while also making a dynamic little fist-motion with his lowers. “No sooner had we departed Six Species space, of course, than we fell afoul of a horrible creature that was terrorising the gentle people of a world called Azabol. Then we met the Nyif Nyif – who were just too precious for words, by the way – and helped them to resettle on the moon they had fled some hundreds of generations previously, on account of the little fellows only living about five years each ‑ ”
“We didn’t resettle all of them,” Bonty pointed out.
“W – what?” Scrutarius swung around and stared at the big, placidly smiling Bonshoon for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Right right, of course, quite a lot of them wanted to stay behind on their big old generation ship, so we pointed it in the direction of a promising-looking clump of stars and just … ” he made a gentle pushing gesture with his lower hands, and waved with his upper left.
“Then what happened?” Chillybin asked.
“Chilly,” Galana protested.
“Well, then we had all kinds of adventures with singing stars, and some distant cousins of yours, Chillybin – and then some distant cousins of yours, Bloody Mary,” he nodded at the little robot. “On a quest for some kind of mystical relic, as I recall. But then we found a planet that had been scorched by a star serpent, and that was when we met the always impressive Captain Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.”
“Now you’re talking,” Captain Pelsworthy, slightly over knee-high to a Molran and slightly under waist-high to a human, amber-furred and blessed with an abundance of bushy tail and golden ornamentation on her shiny red Space Adventurer uniform, slapped the arm of her couch. It was a gesture almost identical to Captain Hartigan’s a few minutes earlier. “That was when your quest finally got a bit of class. A bit of direction.”
“Our direction has always been counter-clockwise around the outermost star-density arc of the galactic disc,” Galana was helpless to avoid objecting.
“Well either way, our esteemed ally Roney didn’t stay with us long,” Devlin went on with a grin. “We parted ways and it was some time before we saw her again.”
“She popped back in to criticise how slowly we were flying, though,” Basil put in mildly. “Every time she got into trouble, it almost seemed.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Scrutarius agreed. “She was always there when she needed us.”
“Now hold on,” Roney protested. Her huge furry ears, one of which had been lost in a recent adventure but then cunningly replaced by Bonty, swivelled accusingly. “I’m not sure I like the tenor of your comments, biggums me lad.”
“Be that as it may, we had some nasty encounters with long-lost Damorakind, and a bunch of giant dragons calling themselves the Fudzu,” Devlin went on. “That latter lot, incidentally, had the relic that those Fergunak – what were they called?”
“The Searching, Starving, Lost,” the Conch dutifully recited.
“That’s them,” Devlin nodded. “Turns out the Fudzu had it all along. That was exciting.”
“There’s no such thing as a Fudzu,” Roney scoffed.
“There jolly well is,” Hartigan retorted.
Roney gave a dismissive snort through her sharp, white-furred muzzle. “Ridiculous.”
“Wait until you find out about the mad inventor who almost turned us all into cakes,” Bonty said happily.
“You’ve told me about it eleven blasted times,” Roney exclaimed. “And I still don’t believe you.”
“We met a tribe of humans along the next leg of our journey,” Galana gave up trying to curb the relentless exposition and dedicated her energy to getting it over with as quickly and efficiently as possible instead.
“That’s true,” Devlin said. “You know, what with the humans and the Fergies and even that aki’Drednanth subspecies, not to mention the Damorakind … the only species we haven’t found out here in the big wide galaxy is a Molranoid one.”
“That’s probably because we have the good sense to stay where we’re supposed to,” Galana replied.
“Unless there’s a bet,” Bonty raised her hand.
“Naturally unless there’s a bet,” Galana conceded with a faint smile. “There were some ancient carvings of Molranoids in the Riddlespawn’s temple, however, suggesting we may still run into some of our kind out here somewhere.”
“That was when I was back with you,” Roney pointed out. “Ah, good times.”
“Again, you needed our help with the Pirate Queen and the Seven Sisters and all that lot,” Hartigan accused. “And you never did tell us anything more about them.”
“I was only worried that telling you about them might make you go mad with terror,” Roney objected. “It’s a long way back around the galaxy when you’re mad with terror, you know.”
“It’s a long way back around the galaxy while completely sane, too,” Galana pointed out.
“I don’t think any of us need to worry about that,” Devlin said.
Hartigan laughed. “Speaking of mad, it was right after the Riddlespawn that we bumped into that Time Destroyer named Praxulon ‑ ”
“Praxulon the Mad,” Wicked Mary amended helpfully.
“Praxulon the Mad, indeed,” Basil said, then frowned. One of his hands came up and touched the hair above his little round human ears, hair that was now almost completely white. Galana knew he was remembering the events following their encounter with Praxulon the Mad. Events that had cost them precious decades. Maddening for a Molran, aki’Drednanth, Bonshoon or Blaran. For a human or a Fergunakil, potentially disastrous.
“But then,” she said in an attempt to distract him, “we arrived at High Elonath on the far side of the galaxy, our journey half-finished and our bet halfway to won.”
“That’s true,” Basil brightened. “And we found the Last Alicorn of myth and bally fable, didn’t we, Fen? Right there in High Elonath.”
“We certainly did, Captain.”
“And … so, just for the record, that meant I was right,” the Captain went on. “What? Didn’t it mean I was right all along, and not crazy like everyone said back home?”
“You can be both,” Devlin said placidly.
“You’re definitely both, biggums,” Roney agreed.
“Still,” Basil insisted, “I believe a good hearty ‘I told you so’ should be entered in the meeting log, don’t you agree old girl?”
“Duly entered, Captain,” the Conch said, with a hint of warm amusement. “Like every other status meeting we’ve held since leaving High Elonath.”
“Wait,” Galana felt her ears drop. “Is that why we’re having these meetings every week?”
“You’d think I’d be tired of it by now,” Basil said cheerfully, “but do you know, I’m not?”
“Can we also note on the log that the Last Alicorn was in fact named Sparklebutt Glitterpoops Whimsyfart Flutterfloof the Third,” Devlin said while Galana was still staring at the Captain, “and it stuck its horn through me?”
“I log that every week as well, Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” the Conch replied. “Along with your special commendation for bravery.”
“And a posthumous medal for your main pectoral tendon-cluster,” Bonty put in, “which we had to replace.”
“Don’t remind me,” Devlin said. “I’m still breaking the new one in and it twangs every time I turn around too fast.”
“I still think we should have taken Sparkles with us,” Basil remarked. “Good old Sparkles.”
“Good old Sparkles would have head-butted a hole in your ship by now,” Roney told him.
“Oh, surely now … ”
Galana sat and listened to her crewmates argue and rib each other. Her friends.
She still fell into the trap of considering herself the normal one. The baseline. Molren were like that, despite her best efforts to rise above her species’ flaws. A human? Just a mildly insane Molran with a round furry head and only two arms. A Bonshoon? A big bouncy Molran. A Blaran? A Molran who practiced body modification and didn’t give much of a hoot about law and order. An aki’Drednanth? A giant shaggy two-armed Molran who lived in the cold, spoke in riddles and allegedly lived forever thanks to a deep-freeze telepathic afterlife. A Fergunakil? Well, a Fergunakil was just a Molran that was a great big bally shark, as Captain Hartigan might say.
But in the – Galana calculated swiftly – in the nearly thirty-eight years since they’d begun this preposterous journey, she had come to realise that there was no normal. Not really. And if there was, it certainly wasn’t her.
Friendship was perhaps the strangest thing she’d encountered so far on her trip around the galaxy … but she knew that if she said that out loud, she’d never hear the end of it.
She became aware that Captain Hartigan was studying her.
“What’s on your mind, Fen?” he asked her, his bright little eyes squinting intelligently.
That you and Wicked Mary might die of old age before we make it back to Six Species space, she thought. That we might all die at the next place we stop. That we are hopelessly out of our depth in a galaxy we know nothing about, and our only guide is a Boze who might just be crazier than any creature we’ve encountered out here. That I’ve gotten us all killed over my stupid pride, my inability to just ignore an insufferable ass like Kotan. That even if we get home, even with all our samples and data, there’s a good chance they won’t believe us anyway. They might not believe us because of our samples and data. That all this was for nothing and we’re only halfway there.
“I was just thinking,” she said, “that we will be emerging from soft-space at our next stop before we have another chance to hold a status meeting. And how very fortunate that is.”
“That’s our Fen,” he said affectionately.