Here Be Dragons, Charlie Boone! - 6. Chapter 6
The wind was a stiff one across the waters, and small whitecaps attended the passage of their ship. GTS Nekton handled the moderately rough seas easily, her powerful gas-turbine engines thrusting her through the wavelets at just over twenty-five knots. The ride was exhilarating, and Charlie and the others held onto the rough-sea railing circling the interior of the bridge and watched their progress through the wide forward windows. In the distance to either side of their vessel, snow-capped peaks marked the limits of the Strait of Magellan, mainland to starboard, islands to port. Since passing Isla Carlos III and entering the broader Paso Largo, those peaks had drawn away from them with the widening of the passage, though none were more than two miles distant to either side. The wider and somewhat deeper waters here had allowed them to speed up on their way to the Pacific Ocean, and their eventual destination.
Their plans, as plans often do, had changed. Robin had found that the ship and the captain he wanted were presently in Punta Arenas, the only large Chilean city actually on the Strait of Magellan. Since Robin had never been farther south than Santiago, himself, he had teleported their group and their cargo to that city, where they had met a chartered plane waiting to convey them to Punta Arenas to meet the ship.
"I've always meant to get to Antarctica," Robin had said, grinning. "And points along the way. There's just so much to do in this world, even 800 years isn't enough to take it all in."
"Nothing to steal in Antarctica, either," Kip had kidded playfully, to which Robin had smiled.
"Ah. Nothing you know of, young man. But I've heard some interesting stories about the place that might make you reconsider."
"Like what?" Rick had asked eagerly, always ready for a new adventure.
But history's favorite thief had only smiled. "Ah, well. That's for another trip, maybe. We have more pressing things to do, remember?"
Rick had sighed in obvious disappointment. "There's too many darn secrets in this world!"
But that they would have to wait for clarification was plain. Robin moved on to discussing their plans, and what to expect when they arrived at the city, but said that he expected things to go swiftly and well. He had made all the necessary contacts, and the people he was dealing with were skwish-users, like themselves. And so they had arrived in Punta Arenas and met their ship without any problems, and now were well on their way to reaching the Pacific Ocean, where the mysterious Island of the Great Spirit, Mnidoo Mnis, was supposed to be found among the many others forming the western archipelago.
The sharp bow of Nekton threw spray up to either side of the vessel as they moved along, causing rainbows to waver and dance ahead of them in the sunlight. The sky was a deep blue crossed by feathery strands of cirrostratus clouds, which had endowed the noontime sun with a distinct halo that gave the scene a surrealistic majesty that was breathtaking. The sky seemed fantastically deep, the mountains to either side wild and untouched, the glaring absence of people and the things of people in all these surroundings making it clear that they were traveling a frontier region at the edge of the world.
"Is stimulating, no?" At the helm, Reudi Krieder offered them a grin full of strong white teeth. The man's many talents had apparently extended to holding a license to pilot a ship, as well as drive a bus. Charlie had stopped being amazed at what Robin's skwish-user friends could do!
"I'll say!" Charlie grinned. "You come here often?"
The man laughed. "Once, before now. It is a pleasure to find it still so beautiful!"
Seated in the captain's chair atop its stainless-steel swivel before the expanse of thick glass, Captain Anders Oomen, called 'Oncle' by the crew, chuckled. "It is a feast for the eyes, yes! I am never tired of this place, nor these waters."
"It's a little choppy," Ricky commented, though he looked to be enjoying the ride immensely, if his grin was anything to go by.
The captain nodded their way. "Ja. The wind is in our faces, so moves directly down the channel. She pushes the water, makes it jump. But it's actually a very pretty day today. I have seen much worse!"
"Is it safe to go this fast in such rough water?" Kippy asked. "I hope there aren't any shallows here!"
Captain Oomen looked surprised. "Ah. This is not rough water, as such things go here. And Nekton is a former Dutch Navy arctic survey vessel, and is built to take stress. She is rated PC1, a designation that confirms her ability to operate year-round in polar waters. Her hull is strengthened for this job, so do not worry. For a ship that can move through ice, moving through water like this is no problem at all." The man smiled then. "As for the depth, Cartera has her eye on that, and she is not one to be fooled!" He waved his hand at the woman seated at the console behind them, a clear signal of dismissal at the worry.
Charlie smiled at that. He had been surprised when Robin had somehow produced such a large vessel for them, though he supposed that Nekton was not really all that large, by sea standards. But at just over 220 feet in length, she was well beyond the vision of the boat that Charlie had envisioned them getting, and was a ship of the sea in every respect. That it only took six people to run such a large craft seemed amazing to him, though Robin had told them earlier that the crew they would need would be small.
"What do you think?" Robin asked him now, smiling. "Invigorating, isn't it?"
Charlie took in the majestic view ahead of them, and sighed happily. "Everyone should see this place at least once in their lives."
"It's a long way from our woods!" Kippy allowed, smiling now, and looking more relaxed.
Browbeat, until then content to be perched upon Kip's shoulder, launched himself into the air with a buzz of wings, and moved to hover by the captain. "Hi, friend!"
True to Robin's word, the crew of Nekton had been surprisingly accepting of Browbeat from the start. It was almost as if they saw such colorful little flyers every day!
Captain Oomen turned his head to smile at Browbeat. "And what can I do for you, little one?"
"Well, I was wondering if I might light on your shoulder for a while. You have a great view from this fancy perch of yours!"
The man chuckled, and tilted his head to one side. "There is room, I think."
Browbeat tittered happily, and settled carefully onto the man's shoulder, and stared out at the whitecaps seeming to rush towards them. "Wow! This thing really moves! It reminds me of the sand clippers on The Tors!"
The captain nodded, but his expression was neutral. "A story behind that, I'm sure."
"It was fun!"
The man inspected the look of joy on Browbeat's tiny face, and turned to smile at Robin. "You must visit more often, old friend. And bring these new ones with you!"
Robin smiled at that. "They have a lot to recommend them, don't they? "
The comment made Charlie secretly pleased. To be a part of this interesting and able crew, on a mission of such unusual import, and treated as an equal, was immensely satisfying. They had come a long way since first meeting Max by accident on the elf search engine, Goggle. And they had met so many fascinating people with amazing talents on the journey!
He glanced back at the other person on the bridge, a woman named Cartera, who sat before a console displaying radar and sonar screens, among a variety of other gear. She was dark haired and sweet-looking, if not outright beautiful, and had smiled at them a few times when their eyes had met, but had otherwise tended to her own business, that of ensuring that Nekton's progress through the Paso Largo was a safe one. She seemed fairly young to Charlie's eye, perhaps ten years older than they were, but something about her manner suggested an age beyond what her appearance advertised. Captain Oomen also radiated a sense of age beyond his seeming 50 years, though nothing as strong as the sense of time that Robin projected, and even that was junior to the sense of age that Nicholaas conveyed. That other people than Robin and Nicholaas could live unusually long lives was a new idea to him.
It had made him think: because of their own building skwish abilities, would he and Kip live longer than normal lives? What about Rick and Adrian? And their other friends?
Charlie still had all his grandparents on both sides of the family, and had had three great-grandparents pass in his lifetime, all at a superior age. Nothing like the long life that Robin had received; more like the one that Herbert Tasker had lived. But what caused that to happen? Charlie's familiarity with genetics went so far as to suggest that if two families, each endowed with longevity and an ability for skwish, were to merge by marriage, might their offspring, especially if their skwish became a dominant force in their lives, live longer than normal lives?
Charlie turned to look at Kip, who caught the gaze and smiled at him. The idea of living a century or more with Kip was not an unpleasant one at all! In fact, the notion that they might love for a very long time was inspiring!
"What are you thinking?" Kip whispered, his eyes bright over his smile. "I can sense the happiness it brings to you."
Charlie kept his voice low. "I was just thinking how much I love you, and wondering if we can be together for as long as some of these other people with skwish seem to last."
Kippy nodded. "I've thought of that before. I get a good feeling from my skwish on it."
Charlie felt a sense of relief then, and squeezed his boyfriend's hand. "That's enough for me."
Kippy squeezed back. "I love you, Charlie. And we'll be together forever, remember? Even when we're done here, there will be the lower level. Just like Billy and Will."
Charlie smiled at the idea. "Create a fun reality with me?"
"It would be my pleasure!"
"I hope there'll be room for us!" Adrian whispered. "Not that I was listening!"
Ricky smiled, and put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders. "Yeah. We go where you guys go. I wasn't listening, either!"
"We'll stay together," Kip promised. "My skwish seems to say we will."
"It's a wonderful idea, anyway," Ricky said softly. But Charlie couldn't miss the smiles on his friend's faces at the notion of them facing eternity together.
Robin could not have helped to overhear, but said nothing. He seemed to be watching the progress of the ship, oblivious to what was happening right beside him. Charlie smiled at that bit of diplomacy. If even half the long-lived skwish-users out there were as decent as Robin and Nicholaas, it would make the world a much better place.
And what of these other, somewhat enigmatic skwish-users? Robin seemed to know a fair number of them, and they even seemed organized. Charlie had never really asked Robin about this, and the man had only ever volunteered but so much on the subject. Maybe it was time to learn more?
He reached out and touched Robin's elbow, and the man turned to face him.
"Horace and Amy are back in the dining room with the timber. I think we should check on them, and see what they've learned. At some point we're going to need help finding this island."
"Sure. Just be careful, and keep hold of that railing. You step down as the deck suddenly comes up, and it can lead to an interesting situation."
They turned, still holding onto the rail, and filed to the rear of the bridge, where a doorway led aft. As they passed Cartera, she spared them a glance, and a smile to go with it. "Watch your step, amigos!"
Charlie swiveled his head back in time to see Browbeat take wing. The flyer hovered next to the captain a moment, beaming. "Thanks for the hospitality, friend! But things are happening, and I want to be there!"
The captain laughed as Browbeat turned deftly on his axis, and sailed across the bridge to land precisely on Charlie's shoulder. "Do you mind?"
Charlie grinned. "Nope. Come along!"
"You were going to leave me!"
"I had great confidence that you'd see us going, and not let us get away!"
Browbeat tittered, and leaned fondly against the side of Charlie's head. "You guys are so fun!"
They managed the transfer to the short passageway behind the bridge, off of which the captain's cabin, and several compartments full of arctic gear lay, and then into an intersection of passages, one leading to weather doors in either bulkhead of the ship's superstructure, and the other traveling back along its length. Here were rooms along each side that had once been devoted to science, but which now had been adapted to a variety of uses. Nekton spent her days now ferrying all sorts of people around the seas south of Tierra del Fuego, even as far as Antarctica, itself. She was outfitted to support an amazing variety of projects, and the rooms full of equipment and gear inspired a certain confidence in the idea that the vessel was ready to deal with anything the colder latitudes could offer.
Beyond these facilities lay passenger cabins, one of which had been assigned to Charlie and Kip. It was small, but held two bunks and a head - a ship's lavatory - and provided everything they needed to be comfortable on the journey. Still further on was the ship's dining room, a dozen stainless-steel tables in two rows along each side bulkhead, and fastened securely to the deck. Each table was large enough to seat six people. The seats along each side of the tables, also fastened to the deck, were mounted on swivels for easy seating. The vessel's original crew had numbered thirty-five, and with the science staff aboard, that number grew to over seventy. But crew and science personnel had all shared the same dining spaces, for in those days all were similar members of the Dutch Navy.
The food preparation area at the rear of the ship's dining room, where a cook might have normally held sway over the small kitchen, was vacant at this time. For this trip there was no cook, each member of the party expected to produce their own meals from the ample stores in the cabinets and refrigerators. There was a stove and an oven, but also four microwaves, and the guys had found it easiest to simply pull one of the many microwavable products from the refrigerator to eat. There was even frozen pizza there, over which fact Kip had rejoiced.
Heavy padding had been laid atop two of the steel tables, the timber laid across them, and carefully tied down to avoid movement. Horace and Amy sat in the seats at one end of the timber, talking. They turned as Charlie and the others arrived, and Amy waved at them as Horace smiled. "There they are now!"
"I hope we're in time for the miracles," Kippy said lightly, sitting down and offering Horace a grin. "Tell me you've discovered the secrets of life!"
Their two friends laughed. "It almost feels like it!" Amy said brightly.
"It has been pretty interesting," Horace agreed. "Everybody sit, and we'll fill you in."
They all smiled at that, and Charlie sat down along with the others. "So?"
Amy sighed, and patted her chest almost giddily. "There's been so much to see!" She laughed then, and patted the side of her head. "In here, I mean. I really don't know where to start!"
Charlie nodded at that. This was Amy's first big adventure, and it was only to be expected that it would be a little overwhelming for her. "Just relax," he suggested. "Take turns, why don't you?"
"We've been sharing thoughts with our new friend," Horace explained. "It's been an amazing experience."
"I'm sure." Charlie smiled. "Any clues on how we are going to spot the island?"
"Does this spirit have a name?" Kippy interrupted. "We really need to call it something other than hey, you!"
Horace laughed. "Well, actually, I've been calling him Castor. He doesn't seem to mind."
Charlie frowned at that. "Any particular reason?"
"Actually, yes. This spirit apparently has a twin. Remember the small rod that Ian Lewellen carried? It contained the twin of our spirit here. I've been referring to that one as Pollux."
Charlie nodded, understanding. "The heavenly twins of astronomy."
"And the half-brothers of mythology," Horace confirmed. "Though we can leave the stories of those two alone for now."
"They're twins?" Adrian asked, his eyes full of doubt. "That was a very small rod Lewellen had, compared to our totem pole here."
"Oh, size has no meaning," Horace said, shaking his head.
Kippy loosed an exaggerated gasp. "Oh, bite your tongue, honey!"
Charlie laughed reflexively, but then made a face at his boyfriend. "Not now, please."
He knew that Kippy's playfulness reflected a certain anxiety over their immediate future. He felt a little of that, himself, so could understand. They still had no idea where they were going, nor what to expect once they got there.
Kippy sighed, and squeezed Charlie's hand. "Sorry." He smiled at Horace. "You were saying?"
Amy looked like she was trying hard not to laugh, and Horace seemed not at all put off by the brief clowning. "It's okay. This should be a moment for good spirits."
Kippy stuck out his tongue at Charlie, but tightened his own grip on Charlie's hand.
"I meant that these spirits have no true size as we consider such things," Horace went on. "They are, essentially, organized fields of energy. Very powerful ones, but that does not mean they require a lot of physical space to contain them."
Charlie nodded. "But even energy takes up some physical space."
"It does." Horace frowned. "I'm a little out of my depth here. But what I gather from what we've been shown, spirits of this type exist only partially here in our own world. Even spirits like Gretchen and Maddy exist, in some part, elsewhere than here on our earth."
"That makes sense," Ricky declared. "Like boojums and hernacki. They're perfectly happy kicking around in other areas of space-time, according to Keerby."
"Does this matter?" Kip asked.
"Not directly," Horace acknowledged. "We were just trying to explain how two identical spirits can occupy such different volumes of wood. The spirits, themselves, do not require a lot of space to occupy. So it seems to be a matter of choice, in this case."
"And do these spirits live only in wood?" Adrian asked.
"It's apparently their preferred environment," Amy replied. "Everything we've been shown has them living inside, and moving through, objects made of wood. But we don't understand exactly why this is their preference."
"They can occupy living trees, as well?" Robin asked.
Amy smiled, still looking amazed. "Yes. In fact, on the island, they have somehow caused the root systems of all the trees to intertwine. They can move among them at will."
"And this root system is joined to an artificial roadway of wooden conduits beneath the city," Horace added. "Just logs, connected together and mostly buried. Each building in the city - and they all have wooden frameworks within their stone walls - is attached to this artificial network. The spirits can move at will anywhere on the island where wood is present, and occupy the same places as the human occupants of the city."
Robin frowned. "Spirits, you said. There are many there?"
"Thousands," Horace said carefully. "The island was once a center for human/spirit interaction. The human population were all witches, of course."
"The spirits are all of the same type?" Charlie asked, wonderingly.
Amy and Horace looked at each other. "Yes, and no," Amy ventured. "They are all the same type of spirit, maybe, just as humans are all of the same race. But each of these spirits is an individual, just as humans are each unique. Even our two twins are not completely identical. The term here is apparently used to define a joint moment of creation, rather than a mirrored nature."
"This was a joint civilization," Horace continued. "A symbiotic one. It existed for centuries like this. And the spirits remaining there very much miss their human companions."
Robin laid a hand on the timber. "This spirit came back with Tasker?"
"Apparently so. They formed an attachment" -- Horace smiled --" a friendship. Just like Lewellen formed a friendship with the spirit that traveled with him."
Robin frowned at that. "Then why the difference in, um, transportation, between the spirit Lewellen brought back, and the one Tasker brought back? It would have been far easier for Tasker for his spirit to place itself into a small rod like Lewellen carried."
Horace looked surprised. "That didn't occur to me, and so I haven't tried to ask that."
Charlie held up a hand. "We can ask about that later. I'm more interested just now in how we're going to spot the island."
Amy pointed to a folded sheet of paper laying on the table. "We went over a map with our friend earlier. We just continue through Paso Largo to Paso de Mer, which is the passage to the sea. We will pass between two islands, Cabo Pilar and Westminster Hall, and then we will officially be in the Pacific Ocean. There will be no more islands to our left side, um, to port. Just the open ocean. There will still be islands to our right, the starboard side, and we will follow them until we pass an island called Isla Diego de Almagro, after which...we will be shown the way."
Robin leaned forward. "How?"
Horace gently cleared his throat. "The man at the wheel? Reudi? He will be--" He turned to Amy. "Would influenced be the right word?"
She frowned. "Maybe guided would be better. Remember how Lewellen said his spirit reached out and guided the helmsman of the ship that rescued them? The same thing will happen here."
"Captain Oomen will need to be notified," Horace added. "And Reudi, of course."
Robin smiled. "I would say so, since the ship is likely to veer away from any course the captain has planned. But we expected something like this. Not to worry."
Ricky drummed his fingers on the tabletop, a brief tattoo. "Do these spirits know why the humans left the island?"
Amy and Horace turned to look at each other. "Well--" Horace began.
Amy blew out a small breath of air. "There seems to be some things we are not going to be told just now."
Charlie was surprised by that. "The spirit refused?"
"Well--" Horace began again.
"I felt like it didn't want to try to tell us in pictures," Amy said then. She smiled at Horace. "Sorry."
He returned the smile. "No apology needed." He turned back to Charlie. "I have to agree that the hesitance our friend seems to have in showing us some things is partly based on his awareness that pictures alone don't tell the whole story. But I also feel there is something else happening." He pursed his lips a moment before continuing. "Remember the website that Frit gave you the link for? When you tried to probe deeper into the mystery of Tasker and the island? It said, 'not yet'."
Charlie frowned at that, and looked down at the timber. "You're saying it's asking us to wait?"
"After a fashion. I do believe it's for the same reason though. So that we do not form notions too early, nor assume untruths to be facts."
Kippy nudged Charlie's elbow. "I think he's right, and that we are supposed to wait."
"Wait for what?" But then Charlie thought better of it. Some questions might never be answered. Would it hurt that much to wait a little longer for the ones that would? He smiled, and patted the timber. "Okay. We'll wait."
Ricky sighed. "Too many darn secrets!"
"But we'll wait," Adrian added, patting Rick's arm.
Robin leaned down to place a hand on the timber near Charlie's. "I hope you will make it worth our while."
There was no vibration this time, save beneath Charlie's hand. He took a breath as a new vision formed in his mind. "Everyone! Touch the timber!"
There was a brief scramble as everyone moved to lay a hand on the wood. Charlie sensed Browbeat stir on his shoulder. "I don't need to touch it! I'm getting it through you!"
Charlie couldn't help smiling at that, even as the picture within his mind solidified.
They were standing by the rail of a ship, but not their own. Charlie looked around, and was surprised to see a wooden deck house, and fittings that definitely belonged on a ship of the past. A tall, narrow smokestack emitted a stream of dark smoke, which trailed behind the vessel as she moved through relatively calm waters. At least, there were no whitecaps present like they had seen from the bridge of their own vessel.
Fore and aft, masts stood tall in the afternoon sun, though their rigging was barren of sails. A deep, steady thrum-thrum came from somewhere belowdecks, as what Charlie decided was a reciprocating steam engine did its work of propelling the ship through the cold water. Around the vessel, the sea ranged away to mountainous islands, almost an identical panoply as could be viewed from their own vessel. That this ship, too, sailed the length of the Strait of Magellan, seemed clear.
By the rail stood Herbert Tasker and Ian Lewellen, looking ahead.
"Bit of a chill today," Tasker said.
Lewellen laughed. "It's still summer here. With any luck, you won't have to face the winter."
Tasker turned to stare, his expression quizzical. "You really intend to stay there? Alone?"
"I won't be alone." Lewellen patted his heavy coat, where, presumably, the rod they had seen earlier was kept.
Tasker frowned at that. "But there won't be any people."
"You can come to see me, anytime you wish," Lewellen returned. He turned to stare ahead of them and sighed. "I'll be at peace, Herbert. I will have found what I am looking for."
Tasker shook his head. "There are so many questions that haven't been answered yet."
"Yes." Lewellen allowed his gaze to come back to the other man. "Some of it is intentional, I think. Pictures convey but half the story. Lacking words, we are left to guess too much. Better not to know, then to fasten upon a misinterpretation as fact." He turned to stare ahead of the vessel again. "Besides, my feeling is that time will give me the clarity we lack just now."
"Perhaps. Do you trust this spirit enough to maroon yourself on this island, so far from the rest of the world?" Tasker shook his head. "How will you live?"
Lewellen laughed softly. "The way the people that once lived here lived. The sea supplies food. Some edible plants can be grown in the protected greenhouses within the city. And, the entire city is also heated in some way, not to the warmth you and I might prefer, but to a degree where average clothing will provide protection."
"The spirits provide some of it. Don't ask me how. Fires provide the rest." Lewellen smiled. "And, not just that, but logs burn without being consumed. The large fire pit we discovered in the roundhouse of government held logs that had burned there in the time of the original people."
Tasker grunted. "But how?"
"I don't know. And, it doesn't matter. What I do know is that I can be happy there."
Tasker thought that over quietly, and nodded. "I do understand, I think. But...you'll be safe there?"
"Yes." Again, Lewellen patted his coat. "I will be safe there."
The vision faded, and was gone.
"That seemed a rather clear plea for patience," Robin said quietly.
Charlie agreed. "And, a reassurance that we'll be safe if we visit the island."
"Works for me," Kippy said. "I already had a good feeling about this. This just makes it sure."
Amy stood then. "I think I should go alert the captain and Reudi to what will be happening shortly. Once the spirit starts to guide Reudi, he must allow it to happen. Being a skwish user, he will have some defenses. He has to leave those down."
Horace nodded. "A good idea."
Everyone stood, and Browbeat fluttered off Charlie's shoulder to land on the table next to the timber. "We're taking you home, friend!" he said to the wood.
Amy left then, and Charlie turned to Robin. "Something I've been meaning to ask you."
Robin's eyes met his, and the older man smiled. "You have questions."
"Yes." Charlie smiled. "You knew?"
"Oh, I'm not totally a dull boy. All of you have been curious about the people I know." Robin canted his head toward the bow of the ship. "Like Captain Oomen, and Reudi Kreider."
"They're older than they look," Kip said bluntly. "Even Cartera strikes me that way."
Robin licked his lips, and nodded. "The gift" -- he smiled then -- "skwish, I mean...is an interesting force. The more ability you have with it, the more it becomes a part of you, the more your body adapts to it. Someone like me, or Nicholaas, with whom skwish has taken up a permanent residence? We seem to have no best if used by date."
Charlie laughed at that. "But it acts so differently with different people." He stepped back, and looked Robin up and down. "You don't look a day over thirty-five. Forty, tops."
Robin blinked, and stroked his beard. "That old?" He smiled then. "I must be slipping."
Everybody laughed at that. "You don't look 800 years old," Kip said pointedly.
"Nor do I feel it," Robin admitted.
"Captain Oomen is older than he looks," Charlie said. "So is Reudi. Even Cartera seems older than her appearance would suggest."
Robin cocked his head at Charlie. "You have a feel for that, huh?"
"Not just him," Adrian said. "Rick and I feel that way, too."
"And me," Kip agreed.
Robin nodded. "The more able a skwish user is, the longer they retain their youth."
"Nicholaas looks about your age, too," Horace submitted. "The two of you must be extremely able with skwish."
"I once thought I had no match," Robin told them. "That sounds like ego, but it's the truth. Until you introduced me to Nicholaas, I had never met anyone with the gift that was older than I was." He smiled. "And more able."
"You said once that there were others out there," Charlie reminded.
"I did, and there are. But I have yet to sense one at my level of power."
Amy returned then, looking happy. "All done. Reudi said he will just follow directions when they come." She looked around at faces. "What did I miss?"
Kippy laughed. "Robin was just saying he didn't think he looked forty."
Charlie sighed. "Actually, we were talking about how Robin, the captain, Reudi, and Cartera feel to be older than they look."
Amy looked from one face to the next, and then raised a hand. "I can sense that, too."
Robin gave a little, exaggerated, forlorn sigh. "Oh, dear. Once the ladies can sense you're older, it's all over."
Amy looked surprised. "Oh, be quiet. You're still hot!"
Robin's eyes widened, and his face reddened, and it was all Charlie could do not to laugh out loud. But history's favorite thief was nothing if not resilient. He recovered quickly, and offered Amy a slight bow. "I am honored, m'lady."
It was Amy's turn to look embarrassed then. "I mean, you still look young and handsome." Her discomfiture deepened. "Um, I mean--"
Horace took her hand, and squeezed it gently. "Sometimes, my dear, it's just best to stop while you're ahead."
Amy blinked, and then smiled. She looked around at those present, and then her eyes came back to Horace. "You are all handsome men."
The delight in Horace's eyes was plain to see. "I think we're all pleased to hear that. Thank you."
"What about me?" Browbeat spoke up then. "I'm a guy!"
Amy turned and bent to where the little flyer was perched on the table. "You are just cute beyond words!"
Browbeat managed to look abashed. "Aw. You're just saying that!"
"Because it's true." Amy straightened, and visibly gathered herself. She smiled around at the circle of faces. "All of you present well. Let's just leave it at that."
"I think we will," Charlie said pleasantly, trying to put the conversation back on track. He turned back to Robin. "We've become aware that you are associated with some kind of network of skwish users."
The older man nodded. "I wasn't trying to hide the fact. It's only natural that people of ability seek out the company of others like themselves. People with similar goals."
"And what would those goals be?" Kippy asked.
Robin smiled at him. "The goal of the skwish users I know is to further any cause that will prove to be beneficial to the human race."
"Oh, I like that," Kippy offered, smiling. "Much better than trying to take over the place behind everyone's backs!"
Robin nodded. "There have been power users whose aims have been along those lines. Not everyone with the gift is motivated to use if for the benefit of others."
Ricky shook his head. "How come we don't know about them?"
"Because they are usually dealt with quietly. The human race must not become generally aware that there are people among them that can do the sorts of things we can do. Despite modern technology and science, humans have, for the most part, not progressed socially beyond the witch hunt."
"People are better than that!" Kippy argued. But it was habit, and Charlie could see that even his boyfriend had doubts.
Robin shook his head. "No, they're not. Many people are, but then, many people have always been beyond such actions. But they have never had the power to fight the masses, who, for the most part, can easily be incited into destroying most any perceived enemy."
"Things have to be better now than when witches were hunted," Adrian said, looking upset.
"They are." Robin smiled. "A lot of people today are resisting the hatreds and divisions deliberately stirred up by those seeking power. The tide is turning. But it's not quite there yet, where we can operate out in the open."
Ricky leaned forward, looking fascinated. "So, you and your friends have spent time finding and, um--"
"Killing, usually," Robin said, without a bit of regret.
Ricky stared, but then nodded. "You find these power users trying to cause trouble, and you get rid of them?"
"Not all of them, admittedly. Some are simply trying to make a living, and don't know any better. But the ones that use their talents to rise in power and wealth, with the goal of dominating others...yes. We generally dispose of them, one way or the other."
"Why?" Kippy asked. "Why do you have to kill them?"
"Because they are dangerous to the human race," Robin stated bluntly. "Some people are simply put together without an ounce of compassion or empathy for others. Some people will readily cause death and destruction to millions without so much as a moral qualm intruding on the process. Add to that the powers that can be granted by skwish, and you have a force that may become unstoppable unless dealt with as early as is possible."
Amy moved closer to Horace, and he put an arm around her shoulders. "Are there a lot of these people?" she asked.
Robin gave a small laugh, in which Charlie detected an element of relief. "No. There are not. Most of the troublemakers you see in the world today are simply average humans with nothing more dangerous than an innate animal cunning to guide them."
"What do you do about them?" Charlie asked.
Robin shrugged. "Nothing."
Charlie could see confusion appear on several of his friends faces. "Why not?" he asked.
Robin smiled, even as he gently shook his head. "Charlie, the human race has to grow up sometime. At some point they are going to have to stop allowing tyrants and troublemakers to hold them hostage. Why people allow a small handful of troublemakers to make the lives of the entire race miserable, is beyond me. But human inertia is legendary. Good people, simply because they are good people, often lack the will that is required to take out the rotten bastards that make us all miserable. And, many people are too easily misled by the propaganda of those that seek to control them. The human race has not arrived at a point where truth has become so important that misinformation is willfully rooted out and dealt with. Until that happens, those with dark designs will always have an advantage."
"Then wouldn't it be a good idea to help them get rid of these people?" Kippy asked.
"No. It wouldn't. The human race has to mature to the point where it will no longer tolerate these sorts in power. For us to rid them of the problems would be to let them off the hook for ever having to do it themselves. Right now, there is a level playing field between average humans. Good people have as much of a chance at winning out as the rotten ones, if they only develop the will to do it. Our intention is to keep that level playing field in place by eliminating the troublemakers with unfair skwish advantages. But it's going to be up to the people to rid themselves of the troublemakers in their societies. We are not going to do that for them."
"I thought a lot of humans had skwish," Rick said. "Won't there just be more and more of these bad eggs to come along?"
Robin nodded. "A lot of humans do have the genetics to apply skwish now. But these talents have not germinated, because using skwish is a nurtured talent." Robin waved a hand at Charlie and the others. "Your own abilities have been encouraged to bloom by your association with other skwish users. The elves, and Pacha'Ka. The numbers of humans where skwish awakens on its own, without nurturing, is tiny. Most people will live their entire lives without their powers ever awakening." He sighed. "And, the ability to harness and use skwish is still not yet dominant in the human genome. I would say we are close to the 50/50 point, but we are still some time yet away from the ability to use skwish being the norm in all humans."
"But that day will come?" Adrian asked, hopefully.
Robin was silent a moment before answering. "Maybe. But not before people take a stand against the worst the race has to offer. Ignorance, fear, greed, and selfishness need to be conquered. It won't be an easy task."
Horace raised a hand. "I have a question. You say you deal with these rotten eggs that have skwish and want to use it for selfish reasons. What do you do if you discover skwish-users using their talents to help people?"
Robin smiled. "Encourage that, to the fullest." He sighed happily. "As I am doing, even now."
Charlie took a breath at that, but then realized it was true. Robin had assisted them every way he could since they had become friends. He smiled. "We appreciate the help."
"It goes both ways, Charlie." Robin dropped a hand on Charlie's shoulder and squeezed it. "The more good people we add to the fight, the better the outcome will be."
"So, this is a rule?" Kippy asked. "That we take out the bad skwish guys, and help the good ones along?"
"No. It is not a rule, Kip. It's a question of conscience. If you have, within you, the desire to assist others, that is all that is important. You need have no resolution to remove the bad players. Leave that to those of us who do have the will."
Charlie could see that in Robin. The man had formed a legend 800 years past, as one that fought against tyranny and injustice. Who helped those in need, by taking from the greedy and sharing with the poor. And he had not changed at all, in all that time. It was something born-in, a matter of conscience, and Charlie could see that now.
"I think we'll just keep going as we have been, for now," he said slowly. "It seems the proper course for us."
"Then it is, and I agree."
They heard a click overhead, and then the voice of Captain Oomen on the ship's intercom. "Robin? It has begun. You and your party may wish to come back to the bridge."
Robin grinned. "That's our call."
Browbeat launched into the air and hovered before Robin. "Can I ride with you for a while? I like the way you talk!"
Robin laughed, and offered a shoulder, and Browbeat settled there contentedly. "I think the fun is about to begin!"
"We should all go," Charlie said. "Horace, you and Amy will want to see this, too, I'm sure. The timber will be fine here."
They moved back to the corridor leading forward, and had soon found themselves places on the bridge of Nekton where they could see ahead of the vessel.
"We have passed Isla Diego de Almagro," the captain informed them. "It looks like we are entering the open sea."
"We're heading away from the archipelago?" Robin asked. "I thought our destination was a part of it?"
"I am steering where za will takes me," Reudi said. "Zat is all I know."
But the archipelago had not disappeared on the horizon before Reudi called for the vessel to slow, and they crept forward at a mere five knots, all eyes straining forward. Charlie began to notice than that he could no longer spy the ocean out to the horizon, that instead, a sort of a mist had appeared before them. But before he could call attention to it, the mist parted and an island simply appeared directly before them.
"Wow!" Ricky breathed. "Is that a neat trick, or what?"
"All stop," the captain said. Nekton's forward momentum slowed, and then ceased.
"We will drift past the island without power," Cartera called. "The currents here sweep seaward."
The captain nodded. "Station keeping, Mr. Kreider. Hold us in place."
Charlie stared at the island ahead. It was fairly large, though he didn't have the eye yet for good measurements at sea. "I can't believe this place has been hidden here all these years and has never been found."
"It did not read on radar," Cartera said. "And it was invisible. Perhaps any vessel heading this way is simply steered around it and never has a chance for it to become visible."
"I don't zink I would have known I was being guided, wizout za forewarning," Reudi said slowly. "It was extremely subtle."
"What do we do next?" Captain Oomen asked.
"There's supposed to be a port here," Robin said. "Maybe circle the island until you find it?"
It was a plan. Nekton moved forward again, turned, and started to circle the island.
"Depth, Cartera?" the captain asked quietly.
"There is some shelving nearer to the island. I would keep our distance for now."
The captain nodded, and they proceeded slowly around the island.
The port, and the city that it served, was on the northern end of the island.
"Binoculars in that cabinet," the captain offered, pointing to one of the doors in the bulkhead near Charlie.
He nodded, pulled the latch on the door, and looked inside. Four pairs of binoculars sat snugly in a velvet tray.
"More there," the captain added, pointing to a similar cabinet on the other side of the bridge, where Horace and Amy stood.
Charlie handed out binoculars to his fellows, and everyone brought them to their eyes for a look.
The buildings that Charlie recognized from the visions leapt out at him, though viewed from the other side than had been visible as Ian Lewellen and Cob Mason had made their way down from the high hills. Those hills, low mountains, actually, were visible now on the other side of the valley that held the city. Nearer to them, a series of elaborate, apparently wooden docks lined the shore. There seemed to be no boats tied up there at the time.
Charlie dropped the binoculars, and turned to Captain Oomen. "Can you dock us there?"
The captain, also surveying the scene ahead, grunted. "What? At those docks? I think the water looks too shallow for us."
"The bay itself is deep enough," Cartera said, "but shelves rapidly close to the island. I would suggest moving into the bay proper, and anchoring there. Our guests can get ashore in the launch."
"Sounds good to me," Captain Oomen agreed. He moved the binoculars around a bit. "Though this is a wonderful little natural harbor. It looks to be well shielded from the prevailing wind patterns by those mountains." He sighed, dropped the glasses, and smiled at them. "I like the look of it."
Nekton proceeded into the bay, and stopped and dropped anchor perhaps five hundred yards from the docks. Captain Oomen looked happy. "Well, we have arrived."
"Are we going right ashore?" Kippy asked, staring skyward through the window. "It looks like we have a lot of time left before dark."
"I want to take the timber with us," Charlie said, as an answer. "Kip? Can you fly it along to the launch?"
Captain Oomen turned to Reudi. "Mr. Kreider? Will you assist?"
Even though it was late summer there, the temperature was hovering at fifty degrees. They retrieved their warm coats from the supply rooms behind the bridge, and then returned to the dining hall to get the timber. Once unlashed, Kippy simply levitated it, and it preceded them along the corridors to the weather door, and then out onto the deck.
"Za motorlaunch is over zere," Reudi pointed, to where the craft hung from its davits.
It was a simple enough matter to uncover the boat and climb aboard. Kippy guided the timber into the boat, and laid it down the length atop the rows of seats, between them. Reudi took the remote control from the little lockbox by the davit and used it to swing the boat out over the water, and then to lower it down. Once they were in the sea, they disconnected the cable ends from the bow and stern, and Reudi started the engine and moved them away from Nekton. They were on their way to the island. The city lay before them, even larger than it had looked from the ship.
"I can't believe we're finally here," Kippy said softly, his eyes taking it all in with a reverent shine. "There's so much history here, waiting to be found. The answers, maybe, to a lot of questions."
The boat made excellent headway, and in no time they were pulling up by one of the lower piers. Charlie inspected the docks, his eyes searching for wear and rot and the ravages of time, and found none. The docks looked ably and strongly constructed, and more like something he'd find at Martha's Vineyard than at the end of the world. That the technological level of the ancient city was far above anything else from its time was apparent in even its most basic of works.
Reudi brought them carefully alongside, and Robin jumped to the dock and tied the aft stay line to a pile. The boat drifted a little farther forward, the line grew taut, and the launch stopped. Robin moved forward and pointed to the rope there. "Toss me that line, Rick."
Reudi hung a bumper over the side as Robin pulled the bow of the launch snug to the dock and tied it off.
"Should I vait here?" Reudi asked Charlie.
Charlie grinned at the man. "Absolutely not. You come with us."
Reudi looked delighted, and jumped to the dock, where he helped everyone alight. Kip turned, levitated the timber, and then grinned at Charlie. "Lead on, McGruff."
"That's my line!" Ricky said playfully, laughing.
"It's catchy," Kip admitted. "Let's go. The timber will follow."
"Wait a moment," Horace said then. He stepped closer to the timber, held his hands out, but didn't touch the wood. He smiled then. "Our friend is very excited to be home!"
Browbeat sailed up to land on Charlie's shoulder. "He's not the only excited one! Look at this place! Is this an adventure, or what!"
Everyone laughed at the small flyer's enchantment with the island. Charlie could feel that, too. The buildings arrayed before them looked new, not in the least bit ancient. The slightly alien quality that the city displayed in design reminded Charlie of pictures of other ancient places he had seen, showcasing ideas of what was beautiful at a time before time was properly recorded. The city was beautiful, in a way that he could not describe, its lines and curves pleasant to the eye, and touching upon all the right things in a part of his memory he didn't even know he had. It was almost as if...as if he had been here before. He attributed that to the visions, where they had seen the city in their mind's eyes. And yet...that did not account for the feel that this was a familiar place.
"Weird," Amy said softly. "I'm having such a sense of deja vu."
"Me, too," Horace said. "Like returning home after a very long trip."
Kippy turned to Charlie. "It feels familiar. In my skwish."
"Not just to you," Robin said quietly. "Most interesting." He smiled at Charlie. "Shall we?" He pointed. "I see the dome of that one building from the visions. I suggest we head there, first."
Charlie nodded, and they started up the wide way that led from the docks into the city. Here there were buildings that were obviously shops and other places of business. The culture that had thrived here thousands of years before had been organized in a very modern fashion. The common sense in how things were laid out was apparent.
They made their way along the streets, the timber following behind them. The cobbles beneath their feet were amazingly clean and well-set, with none of the buildup of silt, sand, and time that Charlie would have expected. It looked as if the streets were swept daily. The entire city looked as if the population has just stepped out for a pizza.
No one had much to say, everyone busy drinking in the sights. They made their way to the domed building without further comment, and Kip lowered the timber to the cobbles before it. "Are we going inside?"
Charlie looked around, having a feeling somehow that they were being watched, though not by the sort of eyes that he knew. "I think so. Bring the timber, Kip?"
Robin and Reudi opened the double doors, which operated for them just as easily as they had for Ian Lewellen and Cob Mason, 150 years before. The hallway inside was the same as in their visions, and the round room, when they reached it, just as they remembered it, right down to the unburned logs in the fire pit. The shutters over the windows were open, letting in the afternoon light, and Charlie looked around with some amazement.
They were there.
Kip sighed, and lowered the timber to the wooden floor. The moment it touched, there was a spark in the firepit, and a flame roared to life there, spreading the touch of warmth over their exposed skin. For a moment they just stared at the flames, aware now that something had been started.
"Charlie," Browbeat whispered, right into Charlie's ear. "Someone is here."
Charlie perked up at that, and looked around carefully. "I don't see--" he began...but then he did.
His eyes alit on a shadowy figure, seated across the room in one of the circular seats against the back wall. Browbeat's eyes were much better in low light than human eyes, it seemed.
"Charlie," Kip began then, and Charlie nodded. "I see him."
All eyes turned then, and no one said a thing as the man - for it was a man - rose to his feet and moved to the aisle. He turned and came towards them then, slowly, into the light, and stopped across the fire pit from them. He was tall and bearded, and dressed in rough but warm-looking clothing.
He smiled and held out his hands, his eyes reflecting the glow of the fire. "Welcome home."
Charlie gasped then, recognizing the face, across a century and a half of time.
It was Ian Lewellen.
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