By Paul Smith.
Bigger Picture (To Walk the Path 7)
Copyright 2014 Paul Smith
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to people, places or events is purely coincidental, and bears no malicious intent.
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‘Hitch hikers and Caribean Pirates.’
To Walk the Path is the final instalment in my cyber-fantasy series The Star Plague Journals. Anyone who enjoys this chapter and wants to keep up to date on future releases (or who fancies trying some of my other work) should check out my galleries on Shakespir or DeviantART:
Timo woke with a start to find Grifarne stood over him.
“What time is it…?” he asked muzzily.
“Too early,” growled the Skuigr. “But you’re needed on deck.”
Mystified, he clambered clumsily from the hammock that dominated his berth when it was up, banging his shins in the process and head butting the bulkhead as he leant down to lace his boots. Swearing softly against the idea of ever setting foot on a ship again after they were done he headed up into the fresh sea air.
That at least did the job it was supposed to, efficiently chasing away the lingering vestiges of sleep, though he could feel in his bones that he was still tired. A quick glance at the sky confirmed that he had indeed only been asleep for a few hours.
So fuck knows why I’m now up and doing. He scowled, causing the crewman who had been approaching to suddenly veer off at a tangent. The abrupt avoidance made him grin, but then he felt bad for spreading his bad temper.
Public face. Must remember to don my public face when on revolutionary business.
Which, he could only assume, this was. Surely there was no other reason why he’d be summoned on deck after so little rack time? Enrico was a bit of a prick, but he’d never be this insensitive, particularly given with what was at stake. Everyone needed to be on their game now.
He found the Skuigr by the port rail near the prow along with the aforementioned Captain and his Bosun, a grizzled old man whose abrupt manner hid a kind heart that had instantly endeared him in Timo’s eyes.
All three looked up as he approached.
“Ah, excellent, the boy.”
Timo chose to let that one slide given that barring the cabin girl he probably was the youngest hand aboard. “You called?”
Enrico nodded. “We’ve a…” he glanced at his Bosun, who shrugged, offering Timo an eloquent look.
“Think we’ve got a deputation, Dai.”
The honorific still sounded odd to Timo’s ears. Particularly given he didn’t even have a Circle to look to, though both Grifarne and Ikari had been rather vocal in stamping down any objections he raised on the subject.
“You’ll figure it out,” had been Ikari’s unhelpful parting comment after their last round on the subject. “Just remember you’re as entitled as the rest of them.”
Timo raised an eyebrow, pushing the mane of his hair out of the way as he approached the rail. Should’ve tied it back. The wind made another bid to fill his vision with writhing strands and he bundled it out of the way with a scowl, pulling his hood up and shoving the tangle of locks back about his ears. Deliana had trimmed it a few cycles back but it was already falling down past his shoulder blades again.
Hair tamed, he leant out over the rail.
The Run was moving at quite a clip, living up to her name as she raced before the gale, sails fat. White horses capered about the prow, and as he watched the first of the boto broke the surface, arcing through the air before falling elegantly back beneath the waves. A second, and then a third followed suit and he spotted at least two more dorsal fins breaching the surf to either side.
Then he felt it, that tell tale tickling in the nose that warned him there was another Sighted person nearby.
Ikari had told him about the boto shamans of course, when the Nym related the story of the fall of Carpassan. And he was aware they’d provided the information that set Grifarne on his quest to the Surfan ruins on Inan. But still, actually seeing one for the first time, experiencing that telltale ping that let him know these were sentient creatures capable of serfing… it was something of a visceral shock.
More so, perhaps, since this is all still so new to me.
He had, after all, been a practising Daiku himself for less than half a year. And for all his intuitive talent, there was a lot about the discipline he still didn’t understand.
“Knowledge will come with time,” Deliana had assured him, when he’d taken his concerns to her. “For now we need your innate talent. Try not to worry too much about the how and just focus on doing what you do.”
Her voice in his head brought an unexpected smile, chasing away some of his mood so that he was able to turn back to the others with something resembling a smile. “So… dolphins.”
Enrico rolled his eyes, palm slapping his forehead in exasperation. The Bosun grinned, quickly wiping the expression from his features as Enrico glared at him. “I saw that…”
“Don’t know what you mean Captain.”
“If I may interject…?” Grifarne glanced about the group. “Excellent.” He turned to Timo, his ‘teachers’ face firmly in place. “You feel it?”
Timo nodded. “It’s… odd. Sensing it from something that’s not… well… not man shaped?”
Grifarne grinned. “Delicately put. But then I’d expect nothing less from a friend of the Drakes.”
“So, what? They’re here to talk?”
Grifarne nodded. “Think so.”
The Skuigr looked suddenly embarrassed, expression darkening briefly before he mastered his feelings. “The dolphins won’t have any truck with an Isshjarta.” He offered Timo a sad smile. “Bad blood between us.”
“For the greater good. And we never conversed directly.”
“Ok…” Timo looked out at the creatures frolicking in the waves again, turned to the Captain. “I’ll need to go into the water. Can you stop the ship?”
Enrico turned, bellowed a string of indecipherable ship-jargon over his shoulder. “Give us twenty minutes.”
“Thank you.” Timo peered over the side again. “Should I signal them or something?”
Grifarne shook his head. “They’ll get the idea.”
“I’ll find you a wet suit,” offered the Bosun.
Timo nodded, following the old man aft as crewmen overhead began to trim sail.
The Run finally weighed anchor and Timo emerged on deck in one of the ray skin suits to wolf whistles and cat calls from the rigging. Grinning, he made a rude gesture in that general direction before heading for the rail where Grifarne waited.
“Sure you don’t want to join me?”
Farn shook his head. “That ship has sailed.”
Timo shrugged. “How far are we from the coast?” he asked Enrico, who’d been eyeing Timo’s lithe figure with something approaching disbelief.
“What? Um… twenty, thirty klicks. Few hours with a good wind. Why?”
“Just wondering, in case…” Timo turned to pick out the sun where it stood nearing its zenith. Then without further ceremony he vaulted over the side, disappearing beneath the swell with credible lack of splash.
Enrico shook his head, glancing at Grifarne. “Were we ever that skinny?”
Grifarne grinned, patting the Captain’s slight paunch. “Some of us still remember.”
“Cheek!” But there was a grin beneath that infamous hooked nose as Enrico sauntered back towards the aft castle. “Call me if anything important happens.”
Grifarne raised an eyebrow at that, turning back to the rail and the frolicking pod in the surf beyond. “We’ve just sent a boy to parley with a group of sorcerous dolphins…” He rolled his eyes, raising a hand as Timo emerged from the waves a dozen yards away…
…The water was cold! He wasn’t sure why, but he hadn’t expected that, not with the suit.
Yeah, and where would you stow the bonfire?
Fortunately years of standing on windswept ridges watching a small flock of mobile clouds pick their way down a hillside meant that it was more of an observation than a complaint.
He’d opted to leave the helmet that came with the suit, leaving his hair a wet rope hanging from the back of his head. Looking about, he raised a hand to the Skuigr on deck before turning to seek the boto. They were all about, and he felt an unexpected surge of joy lift through him as he watched their antics. His time with the Drakes had left him cautious of projecting human emotion across racial gaps, but there was no denying the sense of laid back happiness that came from the creatures dodging through the water about him. Taking a breath, he dove under, forcing his eyes open against the sting of the salt. Grinned as one of the boto came nosing up to greet him into their underwater world. Sunlight from above fell through the surface in shafts of gold, playing off their silver blue skins as they slid effortlessly through the vaulted space, twisting and accelerating to rush the surface… tearing back into the cathedral-like hall trailing streamers of bubbles.
His ice announced the shaman’s approach and he looked at as the boto in question. He bore flashes of gold like eye shadow leading back from the corners of its eyes.
Her eyes, he corrected, as a brief barrel roll revealed the telltale ventral slit on her underside, with the accompanying pinpoints of her marmoreal openings to either side.
A series of distinct clicks accompanied by a ping to his ice and a jerk of her chin made her intention clear, and he nodded, kicking for the surface. They emerged at the same time, both of them exhaling gustily. He trod water, turning in place and reaching out a hand as the dolphin let the swell carry them together beneath the open sky.
Ikari had schooled him a little in what to do if he ever met the boto, after they’d come up in one of his stories about Carpassan. Timo reached out to place his hand upon the dolphin’s melon, feeling their ice connect, exchange protocols. As he’d been warned the sensation was a little odd. He could sense the mind at the other end of the connection, see it almost, in that intuitive way of things that involved the Garden. But whilst he could apprehend the consciousness there, and perceive its awareness, he could not understand it. It’s patterns, the forms it expressed, were just that little bit too far removed from his own.
Fortunately the patch the Nym had given him worked a charm. As he’d been warned, the resultant link did not work in terms of language but rather images and concepts, the former flavoured with emotional content that was recognisable enough to comprehend.
Deciding to be bold, he returned the shaman’s greeting with an impression of her dancing companions, tinged with his own pleasure. To his surprise the dolphin threw its head back, chirping loudly. He grinned, realising she was expressing amusement, emanating happiness into their connection as they touched once more.
Hmm… let’s see… He scowled briefly in frustration, trying to decide how to frame his query over the dolphin’s presence here…
Fortunately, the boto sensed his difficulty and forged on with her query. A spurt of reassurance/togetherness crossed the bridge. Images flashed through his mind: a ship on the open ocean at night, the view panning across the sky to take in the constellations before inverting to offer a resonance of the sea floor. Back to the deck, where a Nym (Ikari?) stood waiting, eyes upward, before a final pan upward revealed a darkness creeping in at the edges of perception.
Timo shivered as the echoing sense of foreboding that accompanied that final image faded from his soul. Marshalling himself, glancing up at the sun almost as if seeking reassurance, he turned back to the creature floating before him. Concentrating, he offered a careful impression of himself linking hands with Ikari, mixing in an impression of the sun overhead as he drew the focus back from the figures and pulling them apart to show this would take place across a great distance. A thought struck him, and he cocked his head, hoping the gesture might be familiar enough to the boto to aid in its translation of the wash of curiosity he sent through the link why…?
Apparently it was enough as the dolphin slapped the waves behind it with its flukes, delivering him an image of what looked for all the world like a vast dolphin suspended against the stars, points of phosphorescent light tracing the line of its flank. The boto broke their physical connection to vanish beneath the surface, shooting into the air seconds later in a corkscrewing somersault that could only be interpreted as joy. Timo grinned, a sudden wash of warmth enveloping him for these creatures who shared their world.
Returning briefly to expression her gratitude, the boto nosed close, tongue protruding briefly to offer him a glowing kernel. He took it, nodding thanks and offering a last swipe of his palms down her flank. She chittered her acknowledgement, head coming to rest on his shoulder in a gesture he guessed she knew he’d understand from his time with the Drakes – Kir had warned him before that others might smell their association on him. Then the dolphin dove. He looked down, catching the flash of her flukes as she switched directions. Seconds later she and the rest of the pod were arcing away through the waves, cries of joyful farewell sailing back to him on the wind.
Sighing, he glanced about at the empty waters he now inhabited, feeling unaccountably lonely all of a sudden. Smiling at the whimsy of his emotions, he turned back towards the ship, raising a hand to Grifarne, who waved back in understanding, disappearing from the rail. Timo struck out across the intervening swell, the rhythm of his strokes steady as he made for the Run’s towering side. It was times like this he was grateful to Coren for taking the time to teach him to swim. As he crested the last rise he heard the splash of a rope ladder hitting the water.
Hauling himself from the sea’s buoyant embrace was, as ever, initially a struggle, but his muscles had ceased their protests by the time he made the rail, and he landed on deck with a smile on his face and laughter in his eyes, the Skuigr grinning back at him.
“How was your swim?”
Grifarne laughed, slapping him on the shoulder before leaning overboard to haul the rope ladder back in. “What news from our aquatic friends?”
Timo grimaced. “I’m not entirely sure… they want me to contact the Nym, I think there’s something on its way to meet them…”
Something in the colour of that innocent enquiry made Timo look at his mentor sharply. The Skuigr’s expression was innocuous enough, but he sensed something beneath it. A foreboding that resonated worryingly with the darkness marring the end of the boto’s message.
“Yeah, though I couldn’t make any sense of it myself.”
He waited to see if the northerner would say more, but the former Isshjarta only shook his head, bending to gather the trailing ends of the ladder across one shoulder before straightening once more. Something in Timo’s expression must have betrayed his thoughts as Farn laid a hand on his shoulder, offered a tight smile. “Best speak to Ikari kiddo. I’ll go let his highness know we’re good to get underway.”
Timo grinned as the Skuigr as he turned away, but the expression didn’t last. Brows furrowed he padded off across the deck in search of his cabin, some dry clothes and hopefully some answers.
“So, you’ve finally met our fluked friends.”
Timo nodded. “It was… an experience.” He smiled self consciously at the Nym. “It’s odd, communicating with something – some one – who views the world so differently.”
Ikari grinned. “Their priorities are very different to our own.”
“Yes!” Timo waved his hands in the air, briefly looking like the excitable teenager Ikari had first met at the inn outside Coranton. “Exactly that. With the Drakes, well…”
“They’re still recognisable?”
Timo grimaced. “I’m not sure I’d put it like that. They’re… on a similar plane?”
“Is probably as good as we’re going to get,” Ikari agreed with a smile. “So, what did our friends have to say.”
Timo pulled a face, gazing out over the view. Ikari had let him bring the setting, and almost without thinking he’d brought them to the Sentinels. Not literally, obviously – that would have been a flagrant waste of power, not to mention dangerous with the Myson on the warpath. No, they met by telepresence. But after he’d complained about the Nym always monopolising the setting out of habit Ikari had let him pick. He was quite proud of the reconstruction too, though there was something odd about the clouds in the distance if you paid too much attention.
“It was for you, actually, hence the call.”
“Hmm… we need to teach you to weave messages.”
“Oh I’m sure you can do better than that.”
Timo shrugged non-commitally.
“So…” Ikari raised his eyebrows, made encouraging motions with his hands.
“Oh, right. It went a little something like this…” and he gestured at the sky, which dissolved into his memory of the encounter.
“Show off,” muttered Ikari, but he was grinning as he turned to watch the spectacle unfold.
Timo watched too, careful to empty his mind off all else as the images and sound flowed forth, letting the episode wash over him as Grifarne had taught. It was a restful expeience, and he found he had to shake himself as it drew to a close. Like waking again from those snatches of sleep the body grabs when you’re tired. He glanced at Ikari and felt a stab of worry at the ashen look on his friend’s face.
“What? What is it?”
But the Nym was shaking his head. “I can’t talk about it – I’m sorry Timo, I would if it were up to me. But this is something I need to bring before the Cabal. Possibly the Council of Thorns even.”
Ikari grimaced. “The closest thing our people have to a governing body on this world.” He smiled weakly. “We at Sha’Klairon are not the only members of our race living on Enoi.”
Timo nodded understanding. “I didn’t know that,” he offered quietly.
“Hmm, nor does anyone else local, far as we know. And we’d like to keep it that way.” Ikari shot him an uncharacteristically serious look, eyes sombre.
“Your secret is safe with me.”
Ikari’s expression softened. “I know love. Don’t worry, we trust you.” He crossed the space between them to enfold Timo in a careful embrace, their heads coming to rest on each other’s shoulders. Hugging a Nym was definitely an art form, Timo reflected.
“Hey, are you exaggerating in here?!” the Nym asked, pulling back to gesture up and down his height.
“Um, no…?” A smile crept across his face. “Grif mentioned it too when I came aboard ship.”
Ikari nodded, eyeing him thoughtfully. “All that finding yourself after the summer apparently worked. Though I wasn’t expecting you to find quite so much…!”
Timo grinned. “Enrico still bitches about how skinny I am when he thinks I’m not listening.”
Ikari laughed. “He’s just jealous that middle age is finally starting to catch up with him.”
“That and the new woman he’s snagged himself.”
“Oh? What’s this…? The lust king of the seas finally settling down?”
“Apparently.” Timo grinned. “And she’s a chef…”
“Ah well, that explains it. Where does she work?”
“In Ish?!? Down by the harbour…? He’s dating Cosima?!”
“Should I be worried?”
Ikari shook his head, grinning. “No, but tell him we want table reservations, for New Years.”
“Okay…” Timo glanced up at the sky, which was darkening towards night. It was Grifarne’s signal – he was needed back in the real. “My curtain call I’m afraid.”
Ikari nodded. “Can I have a copy of…?” he gestured at the sky. Timo, nodded, pulled a marble from behind his ear and handed it across. Ikari captured his hand as he withdrew. “Don’t worry about this?”
Timo shook his head mutely. The Nym smiled, leant in to give him a peck on the cheek.
“Be seeing you kiddo. Say hi to the wolf for me.”
Timo lofted a hand after the departing figure, received a wave in return as the world dissolved around them.
'To Walk the Path' is the fourth (and final) installment in my epic cyber-fantasy series 'The Star Plague Journals'. Currently serialised here and on Deviant Art I'll be producing a collated edition of the finished work once it's complete. Watch this space.