Sunrise over Uberon was slow, but the day was already well underway. Fog clung to the cold, brackish water below Uberon City, as if weighed down by the funk of the medieval city's runoff.
The sounds of urban construction rattled over the bay. Hammer-taps rang in chorus with 'eeave-'oohs of heavy stone and wood being moved. Valkyrie engines spun at idle, sounding a low drone outside the wall. A pilot-trainee would soon complete pre-flight and strap in, and those engines would drown all city-sounds during liftoff.
A pontoon ferry made its way across the bay, tugged by a contraption of rope and pulley toward Sun Runner. The ship sat at ease at anchorage, the bright yellow hull seeming especially out of place amidst the foggy dark colors of the bay.
Harlan laid on his side, keeping his weight low and balanced while two local pulley-men eased the ferry forward. He had a too-small binder open on the decking between his midlimbs, reviewing procedures and test questions on the cheerfully colored plasti-print cards.
The idling Valkyrie spun up and lifted off again, drowning all other noises. Today was the day for all Vorox taking pilot orientation and certification; the Valkyrie had an a'athantra acceleration bench and large-hands control pads installed.
Harlan had piloted the Valkyrie earlier this morning, earning credit for a befogged takeoff, waypoint flight, and landing. Fresh initials certified his mango-colored card for flight in an inclement atmosphere. Few people aboard Sun Runner would care, anymore, that each card in Harlan's binder was branded proprietary of the Charioteers.
The ferry bumped softly into Sun Runner's temporary jetty – a joined and leveled log platform held at water level by one of the ship's cargo arms. A long rope spanned from the wooden jetty to the largest pier of Uberon City.
Tugged by two local pulley-men, the pontoon platform was a deck built atop gunwales, using six large row boats as pontoons. It shuttled ship-to-shore all day, carrying crew, guests, and cargo.
Harlan rose carefully and stepped, still crouched, onto the jetty. The pontoons bloomped as the platform rose higher in the water. Sun Runner's #1 bay stood open above the jetty. Harlan made his way up the fog-damp boarding ramp. The bay was crowded with parcels, people, and animals. Noises and smells clamored, clashing with the funk of the bay and sounds of the city.
He had stopped to pick up a few things in town, after his morning flight. He waited for Quartermaster's Mates to wrangle them up from the jetty and check them in.
Harlan's life had never seemed so busy.
On days when his exposure index was normal, he led expeditions into the Danger Zone. Twelve hours at a time was the limit, but the Zone was finally explored and mapped. A catalog of natural and technological wonders – and dangers – was drafted and nearly finalized.
His other days – exposure level too high – were filled with combat and survival training for the new local militia. Some of Sun Runner's crew had joined, as well. The long, wearying months of travel and the shared excitement of exploration had worn away the crew's division by Guild and function.
Surprisingly, Harlan had gained a following among the locals. He could only guess what they might see in him.
He was certainly no cultured sophisticate, as was Sophia.
He was no savant of technology or of the mind, as was Crypto.
He was no bastion of holy conviction, as was Tragan.
Despite all the things he was not, wherever Harlan decided to spend his night was sure to be packed. Whether wandering to a seedy tavern, attending a spring bonfire in a field, or raving in Sun Runner's Zocalo, he seemed to draw a crowd.
The only thing Harlan could come up with to explain his following was assertiveness.
The locals seemed especially fascinated that he felt no need to hold his tongue to anyone, on any subject. Invariably, opinions would flow with the pace of the drinking.
Just as invariably, the raw talk would turn into a brawl, scattering most of the bipeds. The local Vorox had started to rediscover their nature – the brawls, to Vorox sensibilities, became less serious and more fun.
That the bipeds couldn't tell the difference between fighting and flirting wasn't Harlan's problem. He was a sure to go home with the first 'roxa who could catch him with a solid punch. Many mornings he returned to Sun Runner to clean up – wobble-legged, bruised, dehydrated, and grinning.
Sun Runner's chronometers showed a mission time of over a year. Nearly half a year had passed in the real universe.
If Harlan had leaned on his connections with House Arienwel, he would have had no problem claiming an officer's suite on day one of their journey.
He couldn't forget, though, that he bore the tattoo of a pirate band, and served at the pleasure of the House and Rogue Traders who spared his life. So, from the start of the strange voyage, he had "made his bed beside those he bled beside" and kept only quarters suitable for a Starman Marine.
Over a year of relative time had passed since they had left the Confederation, when the officers of Sun Runner announced that they would begin planning their return voyage.
A week before the announcement, Ulric had requested that Harlan investigate a security breach on Deck 5 – in the Officers' Suites.
Responding to trouble so close to the command deck, Harlan had sprinted to the scene, ready for trouble.
What he found, instead, was a Daggerstar painted on the door. Six clawed arms, ready in every direction, surrounded sacred icon. Below, the words "MARINE COMMANDER" were neatly painted in a suitably large font.
The Q.M.'s Mates unloaded the last of Harlan's parcels from Dum-Dum's cargo tray. Harlan signed for them, and waited for them to scurry out the door and on to the next delivery.
He peeled out of his flight suit. Even with the cooling circulator engaged, it felt like a miserable, swampy body-bag. The last limb, for some reason, was always hardest to get off, and clung, inside out, to his wrist until he managed to kick it free… by hopping around and stepping on the limb-sleeve.
He stretched and looked around his suite. He had two viewports with a starboard view; by the time he got through inspection and delivery, the fog had lifted, and Harlan had a splendid view over the shimmering ocean of Uberon. Deck 5, with the officers' suites and command deck, was just above Sun Runner's waterline.
The corner of his main room, between the twin viewports and aft bulkhead, was filled with Republic-standard survival pods, built in. These were, of course, sized for large Populux, but the suite had several extras. The Republics engineered their ships for wholesale family survival.
The aft-interior corner was organized by built-in secure racks for flight suits, gear, uniforms, and other duty items. Harlan's flight suit would soon be returned to its place for forced-drying and recharge. It would join all of his other duty gear. Harlan's well-kept equipment was first to be moved in and carefully organized.
A ship's console repeater was neatly centered in the forward bulkhead. Updates scrolled up the monitors. Its matching bench, already adjusted to Harlan's fit, was folded and tucked away underneath.
The walls around the rest of the main room were mostly bare. His new furniture, freshly built and just delivered, would occupy those spaces. Local woodworkers had reinforced their finest cabinetry work with template-correct L-bars and spacer's locks. The pieces still smelled of fresh hardwood, and were bolt-in ready and spaceworthy.
Folded giant bear-skins were stacked along the floor. They were soon to be trimmed and hung on the empty wall spaces. Ship's machinists had built a set of bolt-through hooks and trophy racks that would secure to the bulkhead through the skins, accentuating the visual appeal while keeping everything in place.
A built-in multipurpose table and matching large-Populux benches were installed between the console and forward viewport, arranged for a fine view. The aft viewport was surrounded by a sunken area. It was ready-made for whatever hobby telescope or social space that the occupants might wish, but as yet was unused.
Both viewports were certain to be secured for months at a time. Sun Runner seemed to rarely visit places where safe, all-green status cruising was wise.
The center of the room was also sunken, ready for use as a social space. Harlan had chosen to fill it with a low table and kotatsu, to accommodate bipedal and Vorox guests. Kit pieces were still strewn about, awaiting assembly.
The suite's bedroom was bedecked with black and gray furs contrasting with white furniture. A corner bed filled over half the room, covered with brilliant red giant wolf pelts, natural wool blankets, and a pile of brightly-mismatched colorful pillows. It formed a comfortable nest, with the bedroom viewport behind. A built-in desk, wardrobe, and small table filled the rest of the room. Harlan's well-worn and familiar cargo-net hammock was still hooked to the wall.
The spare room and kitchenette were full of packed parcels yet to be either opened or secured for flight.
The private refresher was spotless, yet to be used. Mod-kits to accommodate Voroxish shedding and excretions awaited in a plastic bin, soon to be installed. It couldn't happen soon enough – hurried trips to Deck 4 were already getting old.
Harlan wasn't sure if he would ever get used to this space, but he meant to try. He was a long way from where he started, in every sense.
First, though, he had to study.
His qualifying transorbital flight was scheduled for the next day. He would take command of Star, under supervision, to plan and pilot a round trip from ground, to the Uberon Expedition Moonbase, and back.
Harlan peeled off his scant few underthings and tossed them in the general direction of his bedroom. He flopped, bare, on the kotatsu cushions and cracked open his binder again.