The inert body suddenly jerked, and the dark-haired man rolled over, coughing madly. The sailors gathered around him, and quickly pulled him to safety away from the splintered wood.
“Sir Nekel! We thought you were lost! You were not breathing, and we could not find a heartbeat. The mast fell right through your quarters, and—“
He waved the man away, and sat down on a large metal chest. “I am fine, I think I just got the wind knocked out of me.” He concentrated on the crushed ribs that ground together, and felt them begin to knit. He felt a slight tickle by his eye, and brushed at it with his hand. His fingers came away red with blood, and he chuckled. “Head wounds always look worse than they are. See, I think the skin is already beginning to close up. Just a little cut. Please, go back to your positions, or we will be lost in the waves.”
The sailors looked relieved, though the storm was unabated. Lightning still flashed, crashing down into the ocean with a great hiss of steam. The ship bucked at each crest, and shuddered as it crashed into the troughs. The thunder roared as if determined ot deafen all present, and each sailor believed in his heart that the ship would sink at any moment, and they all wondered at the ambassador’s calm.
When the morning finally dawned cold and gray, the ship had been reduced to little more than the battered sides and keel. Even the ambassador had to marvel that it still floated, but it rod eon the waves like a fish.
They spent two days in that condition, as thirst slowly overtook them in the heat of the days. By night they could see little save the flashes of phosphorescence as schools of fish swam below them. Finally on the third day, one of the sailors gave a hoarse shout, pointing off to the horizon. A low dim shape could be seen just above the water, but it was solid and did not shift, as a cloud would have.
A few hours later, a loud blaring sound roared across the waves; as the occupants of the ship watched, a huge shape hove into view. It was larger than their ship had been, even when it was whole, and it gleamed a dull red in the sunlight. A thin coating of rust gave the body of the ship a rich patina, and the sharp prow cut the water into twin sheets as it advanced.
Nekel had heard of the great Kedonese ships, but had never seen one in person. It rose high above the waves, and great bands of metal traversed its hull like ribs. The prow swept up in a graceful line, and at the top of the line stood a small group of people. They were well-dressed, and he assumed that they were passengers on the great liner.
The ship slowed as it neared the derelict, and the sailors could feel the swell that passed under their keel as the behemoth came to a stop beside their vessel.
A man leaned down from the railing on the great metal ship, and called out, “What in the name of Servak did you fellows do to your ship? Were you trying to catch the lighting from that blew through?” He laughed uproariously at his own joke as his men threw lines across to latch onto the remnants of the wooden vessel. At the end of each line was a small metal ball; as soon as the balls hit the deck, each one blossomed into a rigid flower, latching onto the wood with six panels of sharp teeth. The sailors jumped back in surprise, one of them swearing loudly.
“Our new catching lines! Quite an improvement over the weighted ropes, don’t you think,” yelled the man, watching the sailor’s response. “Gives us a better hold on your ship, of course. I think you’d all be better off to board our vessel though. Yours might give you a rather bumpy ride since she’ll be right in our wake.”
The side of the metal ship opened, and a large walkway descended; it halted a foot or so above the remaining deck of the wooden ship, and the sailors clambered aboard.
“Alright men, let’s swing her around! We’ll lose a few hours on our trip, but we’ve got to get these brave men onto solid ground again!”
The huge ship swung around slowly, metal groaning as it strove to combat the inertia and the mass of the water pressing in on its hull.
The captain met the men at the foot of the gangplank and ushered them aboard. “Welcome, gentlemen, to the Perzelsis! She is the largest, fastest boat of her kind, and few who are not native to Kedon have ever set foot on her decks! May I take the liberty of asking where you are from?”
Nekel bowed uneasily, find it difficult to stand straight on a deck that did not rock underneath him. “I am Nekel, of the Temaltan monks. I am traveling to Kedon as the first ambassador from our lands to yours.”
The captain beamed with effusive goodwill, his swarthy face glowing like bronze. “Well, then, this ship is the finest escort you could hope for! I take it you have never been aboard a mechanical vessel? Well, that’s not too unusual, even the Ersans only have a few of them, and they chose to make their purely military ships. This beauty, on the other hand,” and he stamped on the deck beneath his feet, “is the finest in luxury that Kedonese technology can make. If you will follow me, I shall give you the grand tour of her!”
As they passed through a set of swinging doors, Nekel noted that he had hardly ever seen so uch metal in one place. The buildings on Temala were predominantly made of wood or stone, and the ships were the traditional wooden boats with canvas sails. The walls of the corridor through which he found himself passing were a rich dark wood, bound and riveted with bands of a bright metal that shone in the light from the strange lamps that were hung on the walls.
“What sort of lamps are these? They do not flicker like the ones we use,” commented one of the sailors. The captain nodded, and paused in his walk. “Yes, we have found that there is a certin kind of energy in the world, similar to lightning, that can be produced and used by ordinary men. We channel that energy through wires and a small glass bulb, and it produces this light. We use it almost everywhere, since the energy can be created. We can never run out, and we can create as much as we need.” He turned down a shorter hallway, and opened another set of doors.
“Welcome to the Atrium, gentlemen! I daresay you have nothing like this in your wooden ships!”
Nekel saw immediately that it was true. A wide stairway lead down two flights of stairs onto a floor as large as any building most of the men had seen. The richly carpeted floor was a wide sea of reds and yellows, and the walls were made of the same dark wood overlaid with the bright metal. At the top fo the walls, where he had expected to see a wooden ceiling, the metal bands arced away from the wood, and inter\lacced themselves to form a large web, overlaid with glass. The dome let the natural sunlight pour in, and the Atrium was as brightly lit as the deck had been. The floor was covered with tables laid with brightly colored linens and fine dishes, and at the center was a broad wooden dancing floor. Nekel could see the dias where the musicians would sit, and at the far end of the room, the entrance to the kitchens. The doors were made entirely of the shining metal, and seemed to have many separate panels.
The caravan wound through the hall, the captain’s rich voice bouncing off the walls and ceiling. The sailors were completely captivated, Nekel noticed, and he himself was impressed despite his best efforts.
On the far side of the hall, they entered into another corridor, this one somewhat plainer than the other, though still more opulent than any of the men were accustomed to. More lamps hung on the walls, casting their same steady yellow glow. Spacious rooms opened off the hallway, each lit by a skylight similar to that in the grand dining hall. “Our parlours are often frequented by our passengers; they are warm even on the chilliest days at sea, and provide a comfortable place to gather.
At the end of the hallway was a large door, of the same wood and metal construction as the others, but it did not appear to have a knob or handle of any kind, save a gleaming lever in the center. The captain pushed the lever down with a click, and the panels of the door telescoped into the walls with a smooth mechanical whirr, and left the way clear to proceed.
“I am afraid that I cannot offer you any of our first-class staterooms, as they are all booked. I can, however, fit you up quite comfortably in some of our second-class rooms. We should be underway no more than an hour. It would be less time, but it can sometimes take upwards of twenty minutes to dock. The ports are getting so crowded these days. “ As he spoke, he took a large key from his waistcoat pocket, and turned it in the lock. At the final click, the door split down the middle, releasing the key; each side of the door retreated into the wall, and the captain ushered Nekel into the room. “Please, gentleman, you will excuse me; I must see to it that the ambassador is settled. The porter is coming for you to escort you to your rooms—ah, yes, there he is now. Thank you and enjoy your stay aboard the Perzelsis!”
Nekel stepped into the room, boots sinking into the deep rug on the floor. The captain’s effusive voice faded into the background as he moved over to the window; it rose from the floor to the ceiling, and had a solid web of metal on both sides. As he leaned closer, he could see strands of the metal even running through the glass.
“Very well, then, ambassador, if the room is satisfactory, I will take my leave of you. If you will look behind that door there, you will find a bathing room. I dare say you might feel like taking a good soak after floating out in the open like that for two days.”
As the door closed behind the captain, Nekel pushed the lever on the door to the bathroom. A solid-metal tub met his eyes; a gleaming spout arced from a mass of shining pipes set into the wall, and there were many small wheels and gears. He cranked the handle with the symbol for “hot” on it, and water streamed into the basin, steaming. As it poured, the wheels and gears spun, tossing little reflections across the walls. The Temaltan took a deep breath, and felt the steam fill his lungs and ease his breathing. He adjusted the other handle, making sure that the water would not scald him, then stripped off his tunic and trousers, and stepped gratefully into the hot water.
Forty minutes later, he tied the cord around the dressing robe that he had discovered in a cabinet as the last of the grimy bathwater swirled down the drain.
Walking back into the bedroom, he saw that a change of clothes had been laid out on the bed. They were a far cry from the fine clothes he knew he would be expected to wear as an ambassador, but they were much better than the battered tunic and trousers that had survived the days at sea. He pulled on the deep red trousers, and slipped a mustard yellow shirt over his head. The waistcoat matched the trousers and he buttoned it, noting the rather awkward fit; the man for whom it had been made must have been somewhat narrower in the ribs than he was. A long green coat was laid out on the bed, and he picked it up. Slender rods of metal were sewn into the vertical seams, and as he pulled the coat on, he could feel his back being forced into a more upright position by the metal.
A loud metallic squeal sounded dimly outside, and he peered out the window. A large city was coming into view, the shining shapes of other ships passing by on their way to and from the docks. The buildings of the city rose blindingly into the sunlight, sparkling almost as brightly as the waters of the sea.
Nekel left the room, and made his way out onto the uppermost deck, having inquired the way form a porter he met in the hall. There were many people milling about the deck, enjoying the breeze. He could hear one or two shrill complaints about the delay, but most of the passengers seemed to be in no particular hurry. He noticed one young woman in particular. She stood next to the railing, her skin pale against the rich crimson of her dress. The dress hung in a long straight line, but was held tight against her slim form by an elegant metal corset that fitted around her torso. As he looked around the deck, he could see that most of the women, especially those of what appeared the be the noble classes, wore such corsets; they almost looked like a flock of birds in cages, he thought to himself. The girl’s dark hair made him think of a raven; she moved somewhat languidly, and seemed to be lost in her own thoughts.
“Sir Nekel?” He heard a voice behind him, and turned. One of the sailors approached him, dressed in clean clothes. “Sir, it is almost time to dock. The captain will wish as short a turn-around time as possible, so it might be well-advised to wait near the gangway.”
Nekel nodded absently, and moved towards the steps that lead down to the lower decks; he tossed one last look over his shoulder. If only he could catch a glimpse of her eyes!
The ship came to a halt several yards from the shore; one of the deck hands gave a loud unintelligible cry, and there was a muffled boom. Two strong cables shot out from the sides of the veseel, and latched onto the dock. With another cry, the deckhand threw a switch, and the cables began to be wound back on twin winches, pulling the boat into the dock very slowly.
The gangway clanged down, and the Temaltan party came down onto the platform; a small crowd had assembeled, some of the unabashedly craning their necks to see one of the famous warrior monks.
“I thought their order had died out years ago,” one well-dressed woman whispered to her husband.
“Oh, not at all. They used to control most of the planet, but their power waned somewhat after their war with the Astaldi people. Most Ersadans now have never seen a Temaltan monk; this is the first time they have sent ambassadors out to the larger world in almost a millennia.”
Nekel heard the whispers, but kept walking, wishing that he could have had clothes in less bright colors. He did not feel comfortable in such an outlandish getup, and wanted nothing more at that moment than to arrive safely at the ambassadorisal residence so that he could find some clothing more suitable.
The Temaltan sailors surrounded him, and escorted him through the crowd to a waiting carriage. He did not see any deshas harnessed to the vehicle as he climbed in, but after he and his men were seated, a large belch of smoke erupted from a pipe at the front of the coach, and the wheels rumbled into action. With a jerk, it begamn moving; the driver who sat atop a small seat just behind the smoke stack wore a long coat, grimy from the smoke, and a pair of bright metal goggles.
As the strange vehicle lurched along the streets, Nekel looked out of the windows at the city. While it had blazed brightly like a flame from the seaside, at ground level he could see the film of grime that the smoke of the factories had left. He had not seen the factories themselves, save for the brief glimpse of the massive buildings from the deck of the ship, but they were legendary. The Kedonese, once they had developed the physical sciences, had become enamored of technology, and built factories so large they were almost cities in themselves. They supplied technology, weaponry, and machinery to the rest of the planet. A hundreds years ago, they had begun building boats of metal; many of them sank to the ocean floor before they began to perfect the arts of ship building, overturned by waves or sunk by rocks on the shallow continental shelf surrounding the island nation. Now glass-bottomed vessels routinely sailed over the wrecks to give paying passengers a look at their history.
Nekel’s musing were cut short by the forward lurch of the carriage as it came to a halt. He untangled himself from his traveling companions, and stepped down from the carriage. The building in front of him was small by comparison with others occupied by the Kedonese nobility, but it was as large as any of the buildings he had seen on Temalta, save only the novices’ sleeping quarters. The reddish stone rose three stories above the ground, accentuated by a pale marble that formed the corner columns of the building. A pattern of metal stars was emblazoned over the door, and as he entered the place, he saw the same pattern inset into the floor of the entryway. He smiled slightly at the irony, remembering bronze stars in a stone floor, and lifted his eyes to the hall that stood before him. The room rose all three stories, each of the other stories ending in a balcony that overlooked the entrance. Rows of columns supported the balconies, and at the far end of the hall stood a great glass window, facing north.
“Greetings, sir, and welcome to Kedon. We are very happy to have you here.” A thin man with bronze skin stepped out from the left wing of the building, and bowed. He was dressed in the Kedonese fashion, in brightly colored shirt and trousers, with a stiffly buttoned waistcoat that accentuated his slim figure. His long black hair was pulled back in a metal band, and fell in a tail down his shoulders.
“The architecture is a bit out of date, perhaps, but the building is still quite lovely. I believe it will be very good for greeting guests and lodging emissaries.” He bowed gracefully, despite the metal rods in his waistcoat that Nekel knew must be constricting. “I am Tirol, the steward. I have arranged for the rooms to be readied for you and your men. We can save the tour of the grounds for another day; I am sure you would like to rest after such an arduous voyage. Now, if you will just follow me.” He moved swiftly to the stairs that wound upwards on the left side of the hall, and began climbing. Nekel followed him, and the other men came behind, marveling at the height of the room. When they reached the top fo the staircase, they saw that the third balcony was in fact, a rather narrow façade; one could stand and look over the balcony, but there was not room for much else. Tirol opened a door in the back of the wall and lead the company into the living quarters.
“I have been instructed that you are not accustomed to much grandeur or the usual accoutrements that we accord to nobility here, so the rooms have been left very simple, at least by our standards. If anything needs ot be added or removed, please let me know and I will ensure that it is done. Gentlemen, you may find your rooms off to the right, adjacent to the balcony. Sir, if you will follow me again.” He turned toward a door on the left, and pressed two levers into the door; Nekel could hear a slight whirring, then the door slid to the side, and they entered.
“Now sir, to lock this door, you have only to press this lever here, on the inside. After that is done, the door can only be opened by this key.” Tirol held up a small key on a chain that hung around his neck. He delicately took off the chain, and handed it to Nekel with a small bow. “There are no copies of the key, for your privacy and safety, so please be assured of your privacy here. The bathing room is right through that door, and you will find a new set of clothes appropriate to your station and your tastes in that wardrobe over there. If you wish, I can show you more of the room, since you may be unfamiliar with some of our ways; however, if it will be more convenient for you, I shall retire and let you rest and accustom yourself to the room and the residence.” He stood straight and still, waiting to see what orders Nekel would make.
“Thank you, Tirol, I am very tired. I would like nothing better than to sleep for a night and a day, but I will settle for just a night. I believe it is late afternoon now, so I will retire. Please wake me in the morning.” The steward bowed, and was gone swiftly, the door clicking closed behind him. Nekel pressed down the lever, and heard well-oiled machinery slide into place.
With a nod of satisfaction, he undressed, and fell into the large bed. He was asleep almost as soon as he pulled the thin sheet over his head