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   Chapter 1 Skyside

Skyside: Book Five of The Channel Riders By Valerie Gaumont Characters: 22689

Updated: 2018-02-26 16:17

Chapter 1

As the Storm Chaser dropped anchor at the main port of Planet RJ457, Elena saw several people emerge from the jungle. A couple took a good look at their approach and then raced back into the trees. Elena nodded to herself; satisfied that word of their arrival would soon be passed. She turned to look at the other ships, some already at port and others still approaching.

"We look like an invasion force, " Elena said.

"We can tell them that we come in peace when we land, " Benjamin told her with a smile. Elena looked at the big man. He looked as travel worn as she did. They hadn't planned to ship out, especially as the season was almost fully closed, but they were forced into an emergency evacuation. Gear was grabbed and ships put to sea quickly. Elena noticed that Benjamin's normally spotless wardrobe was showing salt stains and he looked as though he lost a little weight.

In addition to the lack of personal gear, supplies were rather limited. Careful rationing kept them all mostly fed, but this morning Benjamin cooked up the last of the bacon he managed to unearth from the back of the freezer and brew the last of the coffee. Somehow he made it stretch to feed the crew and the many families they were bringing to port so that everyone could have a little something in their bellies. At the moment they were left with one onion, a jar of olives and a two day supply of fresh water.

Elena knew that the Storm Chaser would most likely spend the off season ferrying supplies between the planet and the Docking Facility, the space station that served as the human centric hub on the intergalactic trade routes, but they would need to stock up before their first run to the DF. Elena looked at the row of people standing at her railings, looking at the jungle and the people coming out to greet them.

"Maybe we look like a cruise ship full of tourists instead of an invasion fleet, " Elena amended. Admittedly, some of the tourists were still wearing pajamas and had been since the evacuation. While most of them brought gear of some sort very little of it proved to be practical. The batteries for the electronics were all depleted and while Elena conceded the paperwork, photographs and other personal keepsakes were important, at the moment she thought it was of less use than a fresh change of clothes.

She shook her head and saw the familiar presence of her cousin Mateo on the shore. He and his fiancé Kiera were jointly in charge of the on planet operations and Elena knew he would want the official story to go with the bits and pieces the earlier arrivals would have given him.

"Let's start ferrying our passengers in, " Elena said.

"Looks like they are planning to help with that, " Benjamin said. Elena looked past the row of passengers and spotted several small launches making their way towards her. The first pulled up alongside the Storm Chaser and Elena went to the railing, Benjamin following closely behind.

"Good morning Captain Calabrese, " a man called up from the small craft. Elena recognized him as one of Thompson's men. The sinking of the military's first working craft brought them here and once on site they remained to watch and report.

"Good morning, " Elena called down. "I have some people who would like to get to shore."

"That's what we're here for, " he replied with a smile. "Each of us can take fifteen at a go along with limited personal gear."

"Limited personal gear is all they have I'm afraid. We'll get them into groups." She answered. Elena turned to Benjamin. He nodded and turned to the gathered people.

"You heard the captain, " her cook and default first mate called. "Form up into groups, no more than fifteen to a group."

There was a mass of movement as everyone on deck tried to shift at once. Some grabbed their families, lifting small children into their arms while others went to fetch what gear they managed to bring along. Those who thought ahead or who spent the last few nights on deck pushed to the front, ready to go.

Elena stepped back as Benjamin began counting people and sending them down the ladder and into the waiting launch. When the launch was full, another one pulled up and the process began again. Elena looked out at some of the other ships and saw that the Storm Chaser was not the only one unloading passengers.

The sea around the port was alive with small craft winding their way around the larger channel riders. In the distance Elena could see that three of the large ships the Librarians used were still docked. Even at a distance they dwarfed the merchant class channel riders. She knew there were at least twelve more ships the librarians had at their disposal and thought it was probably a good thing that not everyone was at port at the same time.

"You know I'll have to check with Mateo, but I don't believe we've ever had this many ships in port at once before, " She said, mostly to herself although Benjamin smiled at her comment. Instead of looking like a random outpost in the middle of nowhere, the port looked like a major trading center. She did notice there was one ship that no launch was approaching.

While there was a great degree of difference between all the ships at port it was clear that all but one came from the same basic shipbuilding tradition whether they were merchant class channel riders or archive class vessels, they blended as variations on a theme. Not so with the smaller ship Elena could see docked off the Storm Chaser's starboard. She sighed as she took in the ship called the Rover.

The Rover was the latest attempt by the military to design their own version of a channel rider. It looked like it had been put together by someone well versed in modern military sea going vessels, but who had only a passing familiarity with sailing ships. Elena could imagine a grumpy ship builder tacking on a mast and sails under protest. The resulting concoction was a graceless vessel that looked odd on its own, but rather grotesque docked with the rest of the fleet. On deck, Elena could see Will Thompson, his arms crossed as he scowled at the scene in front of him.

After riding the channel into planetary waters, Elena was utterly spent and slept for the better part of two days. Not wanting to deal with Thompson when signaled, Benjamin merely signaled back that they should wait until docking for answers. All of the other ships sailed for Elena's House and were more than content for her to deal with him so they ignored all of the Rover's attempts at communication.

'He has to be ready to explode, ' Elena thought. 'Won't that conversation be fun?'

She pushed thoughts of Thompson away as she assisted with the disembarking passengers. She stopped a three year old from running after Spin when his parents tried to corral him. Elena smiled at her ship's cat as Spin skulked off to the pilot house to hide out with her apprentice Jennifer. Spin was cautiously optimistic of the passengers at first as many of them used the rods and reels to bring fresh fish into her range. However as many of the passengers were five years old or younger and she was the only small furry animal on board, she quickly became disenchanted with the lot of them.

As she handed a backpack to a couple struggling with twins, Elena wondered if cats could have nervous break downs. She was distracted from her thoughts of her cat's mental health by a small boy who walked over and planted his feet firmly on the deck in front of her. Elena looked down at the serious looking child.

"Thank you for saving Rufus, " he said when she looked down at him. He held out a salt-stained teddy bear whose fur dried into stiff spikes. If teddy bears formed punk bands, Elena was sure this one would qualify as a good front man. There was a storm before channel entry and Elena kept the bear from being washed overboard.

"You are very welcome, " she told the boy. "And I hope you and Rufus enjoyed your trip."

"You didn't have any orange juice, " he told her with a very serious face. Behind him Elena could see his approaching mother shake her head and sigh.

"We'll try to get some before the next trip, " she told him. He nodded and held out his hand for her to shake. She put on her serious face and shook his hand firmly, making him giggle.

"It's time to go Chris, " his mother said placing a hand on his shoulder. "You and Rufus come along now. I hope you thanked the Captain."

"I did, " he told her with all the injured dignity he could muster into two words.

"He did, " Elena confirmed.

"See, " Chris flashed Elena a smile of victory and she tried not to laugh.

"Very good then. I think we are in this next group, " his mother said. "Thank you again Captain."

"My pleasure, " Elena said feeling like she had somehow been sent to an episode of the Love Boat. "Just call me Captain Stubing, " she said as she watched Chris and Rufus make their way to the launch.

"Would that make me Julie or Isaac?" Benjamin asked.

"Which one do you think you could pull off?" she asked. Benjamin smiled tiredly.

"Not sure I'm up for either, " He said, stifling a yawn. "That's the last of the passengers, though. I'm going below to do a sweep just to make sure."

"Good, " Elena said. "After that you can decide if you want to claim one of the bunks shipboard and catch up on some sleep or head to shore with me and catch the dramatic conclusion."

"Oh, I'm going to shore, " Benjamin said with a laugh. "Even if I pass out in the launch. The explanations will no doubt be epic and I cannot wait to hear Will's response." Elena glanced back to where Will Thompson stood as Benjamin disappeared below deck. He hadn't moved since the last time she looked.

"I'm glad someone is looking forward to it." She muttered. Spin and Jennifer cautiously emerged from the pilot house, both looking equally relieved by the lack of passengers on deck.

"Wheel's locked, Captain, " Jennifer said. Elena nodded. During the season, Jennifer relaxed enough to start calling Elena by name, however the evacuation made her look at Elena with something akin to awe. Elena smiled and nodded, hoping the effect would fade.

"Excellent, " she told her apprentice. "Once Benjamin finishes his sweep below decks we'll head to shore for a bit."

"Yes Ma'am, " she replied. Elena tried not to sigh at the stiffness. Benjamin emerged from below decks, a cardboard box in hand.

"Found several items left behind, " he explained. "I figured we could take the lost and found to shore in case they are missed." The three of them moved to the Storm Chaser's dinghy.

"Are you coming, " Elena asked Spin. The cat looked at her as though she were crazy, turned and stalked away across the deck. "Guess that's a no."

"I left extra food for her. Her food was the only kind we didn't run out of. What about Will and his men?" Benjamin asked. "I don't think they have transport to shore."

Elena sighed. "And I doubt anyone left food out for them. Might as well get it over with, " she said. "Let's pick them up on the way in." The dinghy was lowered to the water and they made their way to Thompson's ship.

"Do you need a ride in?" Elena called up.

"Well it would save us swimming, " Thompson called down. Havi

ng no ladder, a rope was lowered and Thompson followed by three others joined them in the dinghy. One of Thompson's crew took the oars from Benjamin and they made their way to the stone pier projecting into the sea. Benjamin tied the small boat off on a projection of stone and everyone piled out and began walking down the long pier to the shore. Small groups were still coming ashore as Elena led her folks up to where Mateo stood. He looked her over with worried eyes as he directed a group inland.

"I've heard bits and pieces as the others came in, " he told her as he pointed out the trail to the village to a group of new arrivals.

"Kiera has a list of current occupants if you are joining family, " he told them. It sounded as though he had already repeated his instructions too many times to count. "If you aren't joining someone already here, she will assign you quarters. Just head straight through the cross roads and take a left to the village." He turned back to Elena.

"I'm guessing you'll have something more detailed?" he asked returning to their conversation as the newcomers moved away.

"Yeah, " she replied running her hand through her hair and desperately wanting a bath.

He nodded and glanced at Thompson. "It looks like most of the ships will be unloaded and settled by midafternoon. My questions can wait until then." He told her.

Elena nodded, knowing that none of them wanted to talk in front of Thompson. Even if he learned why these people were evacuated, it was a secret that didn't belong to them and they weren't going to be the ones to tell. These were Kiera's people not people of the Guild of Families and Elena promised to keep their secret.

"How do the supplies look?" she asked, knowing all of the ships would be as depleted as the Storm Chaser.

"So far fine, " Mateo said. "We calculated the amount we thought we would need to make it through the off season and then doubled it when we did our initial stocking. In addition many of the …support staff have been adding to our supplies with small gardens. The new folks will alter the calculations, but not drastically. We should be okay, especially if you can set up a series of runs. We may be able to feed them all, but most of the new arrivals will need other things to get through the eight month off season. They don't appear to be well stocked with personal gear."

"Once everyone is settled we can start making lists of what is needed. I'll set up a schedule of runs." Elena told him. "A few days on shore will do all of us good and allow us to take stock of the ships. I doubt anyone had time to do off season repairs."

Mateo nodded and Elena wondered if the folks at the shipyard could be induced to make any necessary repairs. The shipyard was officially under Councilor Inoue Riko's purview, but Elena spoke to Akashi, the man leading the group here and thought they might be able to come to an arrangement. She was certain Riko would make her pay for it later, but it might become necessary.

"Your previous crew has a space set up like a barracks, " Mateo told Thompson. "We moved extra beds in so you and this crew can join them."

"Thank you, " Thompson said. Elena watched as he scanned the crowd. He gestured towards his men, working alongside the others. "Can you spare one of them so my men can drop off their gear before pitching in?" he asked.

"Michael, " Mateo called out. One of Thompson's men looked up from helping an elderly woman out of one of the launches. "When you have a moment." The man nodded, saw the old lady to shore where three small children were waiting for her and walked over to join them. The tropical sun tanned him well and brought out a spate of freckles across his nose since his arrival. He looked from Thompson to Mateo and Elena realized he was accustomed to taking her cousin's orders.

"Can you show the other military personnel to quarters and then have them report to Kiera to see what is needed?" Mateo said deliberately making it a question instead of an order so Michael would be in a little less awkward a position. Michael glanced to Thompson who nodded slightly.

"Yes sir, " Michael said.

"I'll join you once things are settled, " Thompson added.

"Yes sir, " Michael replied a little more confidently. He turned and Thompson's three new crew members followed him down the path. Mateo gave Elena a nod and moved off to assist another group.

"All these people will need to be fed. I'll go see if Consuelo needs a hand, " Benjamin said. Jennifer looked from Benjamin to Elena.

"Why don't you go with him, " Elena told the girl. "See if Kiera has a place for us on shore tonight or if we should head back to the ship. And get something to eat if possible."

"Yes, Captain, " Jennifer said. She and Benjamin headed for the trail leaving Elena alone with Thompson. Elena watched the new arrivals. The pilots that came ashore spotted Elena and walked over.

"Go talk to Kiera and see if she can settle you on shore tonight. Get food and rest, " she told them adding to Mateo's comments. "We'll take stock in the morning."

"So it is clear this wasn't planned, " Thompson began once they were alone again. Elena looked at him but didn't say a word. "Why the emergency evacuation?" Elena lifted an eyebrow.

"There really isn't any other name for something like this, " he chided her. Elena turned back to watch the last of the people step to shore.

"I suppose there isn't, " she admitted.

"So why?"

"Why does any emergency evacuation occur?" She replied. "Because there was an emergency."

He frowned. "Elena, " he began.

"It's not my secret, Will, " she told him. "It's not my decision to tell or not."

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Elena noticed he looked nearly as beaten down as she felt. "So they aren't Guild? Not Pilots?"

"Not Pilots, " Elena told him. "But only a little less Guild than you are."

A few months prior Elena learned that Thompson was part of one of the lost families of the Guild. After his appearance as Elena's escort at Mateo's engagement party, the Council was re-evaluating his status as well as the status of the other lost families, many of whom Thompson was in contact with. Elena was certain that when the Council met on the Lorenzo, a council owned ship that served as neutral meeting ground the lost houses would be discussed at length.

Elena didn't envy them the discussion. Peter Baranov, one of Elena's business partners as well as a Council member, was not thrilled with the events and she had the feeling he would try to deny Thompson status. Idly she wondered which way her grandfather, Alexandro Calabrese, who was also a counselor, would vote.

"Admittedly they haven't irritated Peter, so maybe their standing is higher." Elena told him with a tired smile.

With Mateo's elevation in status to a Head of House in his own right, he was planning to use an old Guild law to claim Kiera's people as part of his House, thus giving them official protection once he and Kiera were married. It was one of the reasons Elena was holding back from getting involved in the settling of the new arrivals. These people would soon be a part of her cousin's House and she did not want to usurp his authority. She wondered if the new events would push the wedding date up.

"Ah, " Thompson said. "So none of them have asked you out on a date and incurred the wrath of Peter Baranov. That's good to know." He replied with a smile.

"You didn't ask me out, " Elena reminded him. "You were my escort to a public family function."

"A fact that would have been remedied during the off season, I assure you." He told her. Elena looked at him with surprise remembering how after the party he kissed her goodnight and spent the next few weeks pretending the kiss had not occurred.

"Really?" she asked.

"Really. Look, I think the last of the people are in. Shall we see if I am to be allowed to know why they are here?" Thompson started walking towards Mateo and Elena had to hurry to catch up, hastily pushing thoughts of Thompson and his intentions aside for later contemplation.

"I think that is the last of them. All the ships known to sail for your House have been accounted for and Kiera found them berths for the night." Mateo told her.

"Excellent, " Elena replied, pleased that her count matched his. With his tan, the scar running through his left eyebrow stood out in sharp relief making him look slightly dangerous. The three of them started walking towards the village. "I'll need to talk to Evan, " she told them, knowing the head of the Librarians would want to know what was going on.

As he was as clueless as Thompson about Kiera's people, she would have to let Kiera decide what he was to be told. She really hoped Kiera was in a sharing mood as she knew Evan would be even less receptive to an evasive answer than Thompson. Not bringing him into the loop could also have serious political consequences later down the line.

Sure enough, when they reached the cross roads, Evan stepped out of the shadows of one of the massive buildings to greet them as though he had been waiting. The cross roads consisted of five huge and ancient stone buildings, one located at each of the cardinal directions and one placed in the center. The Librarians converted these cavernous structures into archival storage. Having seen the many massive ships the Librarians used prior to finding a permanent home, she wondered if they would have enough space or need to find additional locations.

Evan smiled as he approached and Elena noticed he was wearing his grandfatherly guise. Despite being the leader of one of the most powerful factions of the Guild, a faction so strong and separate from the rest of the Guild that it tended to function semi-autonomously, few looked into his twinkling blue eyes, welcoming smile and pleasant demeanor and felt his power. His charm was disarming and one of the best social weapons Elena had ever seen.

"Finally, " He said smiling at Elena. "Answers at last. I'm sure the reason for this influx of unexpected visitors will be fascinating."

"Hello Evan, " Elena said. "We are going to join Kiera and make sure everyone is settled before sitting down for lengthy explanations. Would you care to join us?"

"Nothing would make me happier." Evan turned to one of the other Librarians. "I will be up at the village, " he told the younger man. "I am not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency."

"Yes Senior Librarian." The young man replied with a slight bow of his head. He moved off, no doubt to spread the word. Elena exchanged a glance with Mateo and noticed that Thompson was smiling.

"Something amusing?" she asked.

"I'm just glad I'm not the only one in the dark." He said. Elena shook her head as they began moving towards the village.

"I do like that young man of yours, " Evan told her in a loud, conspiratorial whisper as they moved. "I think you should keep him." Elena saw Mateo stifle a laugh. As Thompson was next to him, Elena knew he more than likely heard Evan's comment as well although he gave no indication. She smiled and shook her head, amused by the fact that no matter what else was going on Evan would still take delight in her love life.

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