I have to get this done early, as this weekend is jam-packed with complex logistics and concerts. I’m playing at Helpmekaar College for a fundraiser, with an orchestra assembled by conductor of the PSO, Schalk van der Merwe. That sounds so grand, but actually I’m only one of 6 first violins, and happy to be so. We’re playing Mozart’s 40th symphony, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite and Nutcracker, “La Forza del Destino” overture by Verdi, … (am I forgetting something? These late nights are eating away my short-term memory) and the Dingle Regatta by Holst. Wait – it’s actually called, St Paul’s Suite. Smashing good fun for the strings!
Part I: The Plan
1 – Land Wind
Jon Marsden looked up from the novel he was idly reading, that he had borrowed from Ailyss Quinlan. Interesting stuff. It drew you in. It took him a second’s orientation to come back to his cabin and realize that the phantom hanging in his doorway, that rag-tag apparition with the tattered bandanna and shirt still full of drying blood, was Federi.
“Come in, my friend.”
The phantom let itself into his cabin and closed the door.
“Done with your round?” asked Jon Marsden, closing the novel and putting it down. The gypsy nodded.
“Spoke to Captain, I see?” asked Marsden amiably. Federi nodded again. He drew his semi-automatic handgun and handed it over.
“What’s this now?” asked Jon Marsden, nonplussed.
“Want you to do me a favour, Jon,” said the Tzigan. “I’d like to catch some shut eye. There are people I need to talk to. But if anyone comes alive in this body while I’m not in…”
Marsden frowned. “You want me to guard?”
“If you’re not too tired, my friend.”
“I’m never too tired for emergencies,” said Marsden. “But…”
“If anyone takes me over, shoot me down,” said Federi. “I mean it. He’s on the loose.”
Jonathan Marsden stared at his friend. Federi looked drained. It stood to reason. The Tzigan had launched himself into the sea, in the middle of that hurricane-in-the-making, staging a one-man ambush on the Rebellion. He had refused to wear a life vest in that rapidly cooling sea and pelting rain; he had boarded the ship from the water and killed the whole enemy crew, one by one, in order to save the lives of Sherman Dougherty, Paean Donegal and Keenan Quinlan. It wasn’t the first time, but terminations took their toll on Federi.
The man needed sleep. Jon Marsden got up off his bunk. “I have a better idea!” He led the way to the infirmary, dug in the Doc’s inventory and located a vial of something. “Would you like that in rum, or in a dart?”
Federi smiled. Jon Marsden drew a relieved breath. His friend’s state of mind struck him as not quite stable tonight.
“You’ll guard anyway?” asked the gypsy.
“I’ll guard anyway. Where are you going to be?”
“The storage bay.”
“Aw no, Tzigan! Making it difficult for me! Then I can’t even read!”
“Bring a light,” suggested Federi.
The sea coming awake was one of Paean’s favourite rewards for being a sailor. She clung to the rail with her back to the mermaid figurehead and gazed at the lightening sky astern, past the sleek white sails and the command deck. Old Sherman Dougherty was taking the early shift on the bridge; Captain hadn’t yet arrived to take over from him. The ship was close-hauled, heading nearly into the wind, the sails at an acute angle with the keel. The huge kite that was used for flying, was stashed away in its chute under the deck; a taut jib stretched from the foremast to the bowsprit. The breeze was fresh, nippy in fact; spray from the prow wave showered Paean at intervals. It was fine. She’d change and warm up in a while. Right now the pearly sea was just too pretty to leave.
A short, wiry man with a black tangle of a mane tied up with a pirate scarf, emerged from the hatch, stretching. He moved along the deck, checking the tensioning on the sheets, and worked his way towards the prow where she stood. She watched him idly.
“All as it should be?” she asked as he moved up the few steps to the elevated prow and joined her at the rail.
“You’re up early,” commented Federi.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she said, and gestured at the sky and the sea. “Waste to sleep while all this is going on!”
The gypsy smiled and said nothing. She peered uncertainly at him.
“Feeling better today?”
Federi rolled his eyes. “If you’re asking whether anyone took me over and made me kill the crew last night, then no, he didn’t,” he replied. “’s a matter of time.” He shook his head. “I’m fine, Paean, I’m alive, and so are the rest of us. That’s as fine as it gets by Federi’s standards.”
She scowled. The sea had suddenly lost its glow.
“Got to get on with my studies,” she said and headed towards the hatch, aware of the Tzigan’s black stare on her neck.
Captain Radomir Lascek peered out over the deck where things were being cleaned, things were being adjusted and people were gazing at the cobalt-blue sea. The sun was shining this morning; there wasn’t much left of yesterday’s huge waves. The sea was a little choppy and the breeze fresh, but nicely so.
“That can’t go well!” His First Mate Jonathan Marsden pointed to the prow of the ship. Paean Donegal was busily washing down the storage deck.
Radomir Lascek peered at the small figure with an illegally green bandanna around her red curls. “What was that time-out Federi made you take down there, last night?”
“The usual undead stuff,” said Marsden with a shrug.
“I’ve put her in charge of observing his mental health,” said Lascek.
“Does he know?” asked Jon Marsden.
Lascek laughed. “Are you joking? Would you like to have a teen watch over your sanity?”
Marsden grinned and studied the crew out there on the deck.
“They’re excited,” he commented. “Restless. Can you spot it?”
“Wonder what the Admiral will say to the assault in Lake Gatun,” said Lascek.
“We can’t land at Honolulu,” Marsden pointed out. “Ailyss alerted the Stabs, yesterday before we caught her.”
“We could always sow Paean’s little green wonder bug in the harbour,” suggested Lascek.
“The reputation will follow us,” warned Marsden darkly. “We’re the pirate ship that bores people to sleep wherever she goes.”
Radomir Lascek chuckled. “Lends itself to abuse, doesn’t it! We put harbour towns to sleep, and then we plunder.”
Marsden laughed. “It’s no good anyway, for Hawaii. They know about the bug. I’m positive Ailyss has leaked it.”
“Leaky girl that! We’ll have to interrogate her quite a bit more,” sighed Lascek. “We should ask Paean to program a different one.”
“One that makes them sing and dance?” asked Marsden.
“Or walk in circles,” laughed the Captain. “But you’re right, Jon. We can’t land. Will have to think of a plan.”
“Prime Oil first,” said Marsden.
“Yes. Prime Oil tonight.”
Wolf looked up from the spy novel he was reading as Paean came in.
“Okay, buddy, time to make good on your promise.” She closed the door. Suddenly the infirmary was a lot smaller, and a bit claustrophobic, and somehow even more yellow. “First, let me look at that knee of yours.”
Wolf held his breath. This all sounded rather ominous. He wasn’t entirely sure that he’d have the nerve to give her what she was about to ask of him. It was a pickle – last night he had agreed to comply with a condition she hadn’t yet named, in exchange for a few hours on the deck amongst the crew. She knew how to abuse her position as paramedic!
Well, if she asked what he suspected she would, and if he found that it was too much, he’d simply have to be a pirate and break his word. Simply? Nothing was simple about this! He studied her pretty, freckled face and wondered.
Paean clipped the cast closed again with a smug grin.
“Finally that knee is looking better! Carry on like that! Maybe Doc will allow you up in a few days’ time. Let me see that cheek.” She inspected the scar. “Yup, that looks good too. Your beauty is undiminished.”
“Beauty,” grinned Wolf.
“Yes,” replied Paean. “You look even more like a highwayman.”
Wolf blinked and swallowed the barbed compliment.
“At least you don’t smell quite so dangerous anymore,” added Paean brightly. Wolf gasped. This was getting personal!
“Yup, I see,” she continued, motioning to the tools of personal hygiene that were sitting on the floor under Wolf’s bunk. Soap, towels and toothbrush in a compounding washbasin.
Wolf glared at her. “Did you only come here to yank my chain?”
“Actually,” said Paean, sitting down on the chair and locking gazes with him. “You have a promise to keep, my dearest Viking. Firstly, this is super-confidential. Your pledge that not a word of this shall cross your lips,” she demanded.
“Promise,” said Wolf warily, searching her face for clues. Lips, she had said. Hmm.
“Wolf’s honour,” grinned the Swede. Honestly!
“Good. Now listen. You work alongside Ailyss. Do you like her?”
Wolf frowned. “What do you mean?” What the heck did she mean? What did she intend? She ought to leave Ailyss out of this!
“I mean, Wolf: Do you like her? Do you see her as a friend? Ronan for example distrusts her completely, although he’s resolved to help protect her. And Federi would like to hang her from the rigging. Although he’s not going to.”
Wolf stared at her. “What!” That was bad news, the Romany feeling that way.
“Yes! Exactly. Now: Do you like her?”
Wolf rolled his eyes. “Paean, I’m not good with girls. I offered her my friendship and she turned it down.”
“When was this?”
“Shortly before she was found out.”
Paean laughed. “I’m sure you can work that one out yourself. Bright young nuclear engineer like you! She was trying to keep away from making friends because her mission was to kill us all. Can you give it another shot?”
Wolf pulled a face. Where was this going? “I can try.”
“Can you do this for me? This is your part of the bargain. Be nice to her every time you see her. Tell her something nice. Do something small for her. I don’t know. Just make her feel really at home. Be her friend. Without saying anything about it. Can you do that?”
That was it? The mystery condition? Being nice to Ailyss? Wolf wasn’t completely sure whether he was relieved or disappointed. “The way you did for me?”
“Och Wolf, would you kindly forget that? I just can’t stand seeing people suffer. Especially from boredom.”
“Boredom! That was not boredom, you little good-for-n…” Wolf petered out. No, this tack wasn’t going to earn him any points. “Sorry, Paean. I owe you a big apology. For everything. You’re the most competent fifteen-year-old I’ve ever come across. And sweet, and caring. And pretty in the bargain! Darned gorgeous!” He grinned and took in the shock in her eyes. Well, if she wanted to play with fire…
“No!” muttered Paean.
“In fact… ” added Wolf, enjoying her horrified expression. It was now or never! Time to be a complete pirate. He took a breath while he considered how to tell her this.
“It’s called…” interrupted Paean, panicky, “… it’s called … it’s called … it’s a common occurrence, you know! Happens all the time! Just ignore it!”
Wolf grinned at her. “What concerns Ailyss, you know.”
“It’s alright, you don’t have to tell me,” said Paean quickly.
“Now that she has been judged and acquitted, I suppose I can tell you,” he carried on unperturbed. “I thought I saw her getting up to things in the machine room. Those cables she was working into jewellery? Guess where she took them from!”
“Hells, Wolf, why didn’t you speak up?”
Wolf shook his head with a sad smile. “If it had been – say – Federi, for argument’s sake, and you had observed him doing something weird and illogical?”
Paean laughed. “Wolf, Federi is always doing something weird and illogical! ‘s the definition of who he is!”
“Yes, fine, but you know what I mean.”
“No,” said Paean, wide-eyed. “Not really. I’d have assumed he knows what he’s doing.”
Wolf shook his head. Wrong answer. She was being deliberately obtuse.
“Paean, think about it. We all know she’s a spy, and we keep a close eye on her, and she does nothing for a long time. And then suddenly she does something suspect. Or maybe not.”
“Make up your mind,” said Paean.
“That’s why I had to get up and check!” exclaimed Wolf, exasperated. “To find out whether she had really done something, or not! If I had sounded alarm and she’d been innocent, I would have incriminated her for nothing! Get that, Donegal numbskull?”
“Course I get that, Svendsson knucklehead,” retorted Paean. “The point is, then why didn’t you squeak up and tell little old Paean, your long-suffering paramedic? I’d have gone and checked for you, or called Marsden, or maybe Dr Jake, whomever you’d have preferred. Or Federi.”
“And Ailyss would have ended up on trial for nothing?”
“We’re damned well talking in circles here,” said Paean heatedly. “What it really comes down to, Wolf Svendsson, is that you didn’t trust me to keep a confidence. You didn’t think I could handle it with discretion and circumspection.”
There, it was said. Paean’s face fell.
“Well, boogie for you,” she snapped. “Regardless. You’re honour-bound, Wolf. You have to keep up your end. Whether you like to or not. That, or admit that you’re a whimsical liar and not the upstanding fine pirate you claim to be! And then I’ll give the task to Rhine Gold. I’m positive he’ll like it! He’s looking for a girlfriend. Blast, maybe I should have asked him first!” She looked around for a weapon. Wolf’s last disagreement had ended in his getting shot. He was clearly the type who sorted things with violence! How she could have thought so well of him a second ago, so very nearly even fancied him… to hell!
Wolf regarded her with a flabbergasted intensity.
“Hey, what’s got into you, kid?”
She had found her weapon. She loaded it and brandished it.
“Stay away with that green stuff,” warned Wolf. “There’s no call. Paean, where in hell are you suddenly? On which page?”
“You’re going to break the bargain,” she snapped. “Pointless lout!”
“The contrary,” said Wolf with a little smile. “It’s a nice condition! I’m actually surprised, Paean. You’re a lot more sensible and mature than I thought. I’ll make a point of being a friend to her. You can count on me!”
Paean halted. She became completely still. Stared at him, at his awfully beautiful green eyes. The activated Valeriensis in the syringe started dripping out of the end of the needle. Made slippery pea-green drips on the infirmary’s grey compounding floor.
“You’re going to?”
“Of course! Was going to try in any case! Content now, gorgeous?”
The wind had been taken out of Paean’s onslaught. These were unfair tactics. He had changed his tack so suddenly, she had slipped on her own rage!
“Well, good,” she said acidly and left, barely refraining from slamming the cabin door. Wolf looked at the syringe full of green stuff that had been flung down dripping into the kidney-dish with spent bandages, and shook his head.
Solar Wind, 16 May 2116
What is this Prime Oil they keep on about? I think I know! It’s a landmass of sorts! A volcanic island, maybe. Because I can detect it – the darned land wind!
Aargh! I could strangle that Wolf! He’s being a first-rate lout! But hey, Paean – learn this: Wolf is a blasted lout! And I can be sure that it’s land wind because it got the others, too:
Mr Marsden is prancing around with a ten-mile grin.
Ronan must have tried to open a tube of liquid compounding with his teeth, because he’s stuck to Rushka’s face.
Rhine Gold gives me these brainless gazes whenever our paths cross. It’s enough to make me want to jump overboard!
And Federi has the glooms. He always gets those close to land.
Oh hey but I’m unfair about Federi now! After what he went through yesterday.
You never know what it is to be sane until you are a sailor. I think, all the politics in Molly Street and in the pubs were all Land Madness!
Got to get back to work now, they’ll wonder where I am.
Federi glanced up from the deck where he was tightening the bolts on a cleat that had become wobbly. In the blue of the afternoon stood a windswept little figure, observing him. He smiled.
“Hey, Federi.” She hesitated.
“Hey, little luv!” He shook his head with a grin. “Sorry I messed up your sunrise this morning.”
“’s fine,” she muttered, sinking down into a cross-legged position to keep him company where he worked. “Feeling better now?”
He gestured at the sea and sky to port with his bandaged right hand. “All this,” he said. “See? Now stop asking me that! Feeling fine! You’ve swabbed down my thinking spot. Still not dry! Can’t take a break without getting my pants wet! Did you use a whole bathtub for it?”
“Bet you did it on purpose,” added the entertainer with a grin. He put down his spanner, fixated her with a dark stare and lowered his voice. “Tonight,” he said, “hang close to me, hai shala? Want to show you all of Prime Oil.”
“What is Prime Oil?” asked Paean.
“Ah.” He smiled. “A place. You’ll see. Anyway I’ve got to watch over your sanity, girl. Captain’s orders.”
“Hey!” She narrowed her eyes at him in suspicion. And then Doc Judith’s order came from the hatch. Paean jumped up and ran off.
Federi watched her go, and the sunshine fell off his face. Moments, pictures in the memory gallery. He ought to hang onto that. It was all there was, when the death date was only weeks away.
It wouldn’t be so bad, hanging there waiting to die. But the problem was, last night during his fevered dreams, guarded over by Jon Marsden with his own gun, the answer had arrived. And it wasn’t pretty.
But it was worth it. Her Bouncy Redheadity with Rhine Gold and Wolf mooning after her, was going to live. Well worth his sacrifice.
In the round control room with the central console, Vincent beckoned engineer Jan closer.
“See there?” He pointed to the console screen.
A smile started on Jan’s austere features. Vincent glanced at his colleague and saw tears brimming in her eyes.
“They made it,” she commented. “How could I ever have doubted it?”
“That’s Captain Radomir we’re talking about,” agreed Vincent with a grin.
“Well, after the way Federi bid us all farewell last time, he sounded so certain that they wouldn’t survive another round,” replied Jan.
“That’s right,” agreed Vincent. “He said they would die in Panama. Something to do with crossing over land, ship in sweet water. As though he hasn’t passed that way dozens of times!”
Jan laughed. “The superstitious old gloom-horse! Regardless, there they are! They’ll be here in another… what?”
“Three or four hours,” replied Vincent.
“Should we tell Michelle?”
“Nah. Let it be a surprise!”
The Solar Wind’s crew was gathered on the deck in the purple dusk. Federi had fed them their supper out here. Before leaving Dublin, Paean had had no idea how many variations one could get on fish and chips. They had restocked from the Rebel Schooner, but Federi had regarded those dried rations with disdain and muttered something about dehydrated cardboard.
He was keeping comparatively close, following her instructions, she noted. Good! Because Federi was far from out of danger. And life on the Solar Wind without the comical entertainer – her gentle friend – would be depressing. And fairly boring, if one discounted the antics of certain – highwaymen!
From her spot close to the sail house she studied the crew dynamics through the haze. Ronan and Rushka were sitting close together, talking softly. Shawn and Keenan were having an excited game of wit. Their bright twelve-year-old laughter echoed across the deck at short intervals. Paean was impressed how fast the little boy had bounced back from his ordeal with the Rebellion. Children seemed to sense instinctively that they were safe on Captain Lascek’s ship.
Ailyss was alone, sitting to one side studying the crew, a slightly dog-eared novel in her hand. Her eyes met Paean’s. The quiet brunette smiled. Paean knew who had made those dog-ears into that poor paperback! She had seen how the highway robber treated books!
And there he was, rats on him! Doc Judith had allowed him on the deck. Why now? Couldn’t the Doc have damned the lout to three more days down under? Paean made a point of ignoring the young nuclear engineer who was shooting her doleful glances. He had dug his own grave, she thought.
By now the crew was full of good food and nicely lethargic.
“Now, little jigster,” said Federi quietly, right by her ear, “go get your fiddle! Let’s have some real music!”
“We just had a Ceilidh yesterday,” objected Paean, surprised.
“There’s no upper limit,” Federi informed her. “What you were hired for! Got to earn your daily wage!”
“Och, alright! Anything for you, Federi!” she chirped brightly, catching the attention of quite a few of the sailors and causing the gypsy to recede a bit into the shadows. And off she ran to fetch her violin and Ronan’s guitar. The Clarsach would just have to come walking along by itself.
“Fun and games,” commented Marsden on the bridge.
Radomir Lascek glanced up from the console, following his First Mate’s gaze out onto the deck. He sighed, depressed, returning his attention to the infernal stuff that had come out of the two Unicate capsules. “My friend, how are we going to deflect this? We’ll never have our defences ready in time!”
“We’ve known for years,” said Jonathan Marsden. “It’s in their character.”
“There’s not enough time,” countered the Captain. He stared moodily at the deck.
Federi predicted that the Solar Wind wasn’t going to survive long enough to see the Unicate’s cataclysmic war. Three weeks was all he gave them. Federi’s finely tuned gypsy radar responded to subliminal cues. Though it appeared as though it might have a line to the future, Lascek strongly suspected that the Tzigan merely had a highly accurate intuitive ability to combine clues into a complete picture. With this came an extremely sensitive awareness of all the slight changes in the environment. Electrical signals and air pressure were things others might or might not notice; Federi seemed to pick them all up subconsciously and read them like a data file, and combine them into a hunch and act upon that. The Rebellion flotilla? Those ships all sent out electric signals to satellite. If the Solar Wind weren’t hiding from the satellite herself, she’d have picked them up too. A strong argument for completing the electromagnetic shield and the reverse signal refudgifyer.
Federi’s hunches were accurate. If he predicted that the Solar Wind wasn’t going to survive the next three weeks… Lascek frowned at the Ceilidh out on the deck. Let them sing and be happy while they were still alive! The Tzigan had done well when he’d talked him into hiring those three.
Paean’s fiddle earned a decent daily wage that night. She played Irish reels and jigs until old Sherman felt like getting up and dancing. Rushka sat by Ronan’s side. He didn’t mind too much playing guitar around her. At some point Ro would have to teach the Captain’s daughter an instrument, thought Paean, so he could lose the handicap again.
Wolf tried some discords on Ronan’s guitar, seeing that the Donegal couldn’t find all the pertinent chords anyway. Wolf was trying to teach himself flamenco. Very haphazardly, thought Paean unkindly. Keenan had taken an interest in the instruments Shawn was playing. Odd stuff. Ronan’s clarsach. The bodhràn. The ocarina. Luckily the Captain had placed a moratorium on the bagpipes! He and Marsden were on the bridge, navigating and no doubt discussing matters of great weight. At intervals Paean’s gaze wandered up to the bridge, wondering if they weren’t actually hiding from the commotion. And Rhine Gold sat a bit further away, peeling potatoes.
“One day we should really cook and eat some of these potatoes,” he loudly told Federi who was re-emerging from below the deck loaded with mugs of coffee.
“Why?” asked the gypsy cook quizzically. Paean grinned. They had just eaten fish and chips! What did this potato think chips were made of – seaweed? She moved over to them, wondering for a moment if she should give Rhine Gold the same task as Wolf. Set up some competition!
“Urgh, potatoes again,” she grinned. And it seemed as though she were getting her wish concerning Rhine Gold! Och, she wouldn’t! He didn’t deserve it! None of them did, blast them all! None was nice enough. Except Federi – and luckily he disliked Ailyss.
“I’ll try peeling carrots tomorrow, maybe that works better,” said Rhine Gold.
“Violista! Get away! Shoo! Go play!” said the gypsy. “No time yet for a break!”
Paean wandered back to her sibs and let fly another reel.
“Can’t make Vodka from carrots, Rhine Gold,” said Federi quietly. “Be sensible!”
As the evening wore on, one by one the crew drifted into the boardroom. Shawn handed out decks of cards he had bought in Atuona. Jon Marsden came in to check on everything, and played a hand or two with them.
“These decks are stacked,” he commented. “Are these all decks on hand?”
“I could load you some dice, sir,” replied Shawn.
Dr Jake looked up from the computer terminal.
“Doc, I thought you might want to take a break and join the Ceilidh, and the gambling,” offered Ailyss. “I’ll take a shift.”
Dr Jake studied her critically.
“Doc, I wanted to apologize, too,” she added, sighing. “I’ve loaded such a lot of work on you! With Wolf out of action and myself not to be trusted…”
Dr Jake smiled. So the spy wanted to make amends?
“I’ve been working the machine room alone for many years before Wolf got hired,” he said. “For me it’s no hardship. I enjoy it down here.”
Ailyss didn’t look entirely happy about this yet.
“Ailyss,” said Dr Jake, “you are forgiven. I would not have spoken for you if I hadn’t forgiven you. When we’re at Prime Oil, I may need you to take a shift. Right now there are things I want to look up.”
She looked considerably happier, he thought.
“Go and have fun,” he encouraged her. “The young crowd is waiting for you, I’m sure.”
“Thanks, Doc,” said Ailyss and removed herself from the machine room. Dr Jake returned to his programming. It never occurred to him to second-guess her motives.
I’m also giving away a few free copies of “The Assassin” on Smashwords for readers to celebrate. (I like Hobbit-style celebrations where the guests receive presents.) Here is the link to the series: