Captain's Log Thirty-Six

The Little Hero

The last few hours had been undeniably destructive to Gyle's body. He was so drained that he didn't even have the energy to walk. Not that Ingrid would have allowed him to even if he did have the energy. After falling from such a tremendous height, she was concerned that he'd broken most, if not all, of his limbs. He tried to tell her that his arms and legs were just fine, but even he couldn't be sure. He couldn't feel much of anything.

That's how he found himself on Noelle's back as they stood in front of the Stealth Breeze. A step inside bumped them into Rowan, who was cradling a large number of bottles filled with water.

"There you are," he said exasperatedly. "Things have been getting pretty damn hectic around here. First Marco shows up with these girls saying they needed to be treated, and then we find out you went after Gyle on your own. Seriously, it's been a headache and a half with you guys gone."

"I'm okay," Ingrid said. "I'm much better off than Gyle is, anyway."

"I can see that," Rowan said with a wince. "Marina is really going to be earning her keep tonight. She hasn't stopped working since Marco got back. Now she's got me fetching water for her."

"She's not at the Kingdom anymore," Gyle said. "That's why she's always thirsty."

"Then I'd better hurry to her," Rowan realized. "She sounded pretty crabby when I left." He took a look at Noelle and she returned a calculating expression. "Who's this?"

"My name is Noelle," she said.

"You couldn't resist hitching a ride on her back or something?" Rowan asked Gyle.

"Don't make this anymore humiliating than it already is," Gyle groaned. "I can't do much of anything right now."

"Don't think of it as humiliating," Noelle said. "Consider it my thanks for everything you've done for me."

"What could Gyle have possibly done to earn a ride on the back of a pretty lady such as yourself?" Rowan wondered.

"Try getting captured, having your ribs caved in, then getting dropped from five stories in the air into a forest, all while trying not to die at the hands of a greedy pirate," Gyle listed. "And I might have freed a jail cell full of girls somewhere in there, too."

"Nobody likes a showoff," Rowan said morosely.

"Don't sound so disappointed," Gyle said. "I wasn't exactly having fun while doing those things."

"So what's the deal with Noelle?"

"I am Dr. Lucas's assistant," Noelle said. "I'll be able to direct you to him so you can deliver the vial."

"Really?" Rowan asked, astonished.

"I'll explain everything once things calm down a bit," Gyle explained. "Go tell the rest of the crew to head to the bridge."

"Sure," Rowan said as he parted ways with Gyle, Ingrid, and Noelle and continued on to the cabin Marina had set up as an infirmary. All of her patients were arranged neatly on the floor while she worked. There were all sorts of medical supplies spilling out of her bag which was sitting on Hawkeye's back so it was easily mobile. She was clearly lamenting the fact that she only had two hands as she gripped a roll of bandages in her mouth. Her frantic pace was dehydrating her already handicapped body. Rowan couldn't have offered her a bottle of water any sooner.

"What took you so long?" Marina complained after she downed her mouthful of water.

"Gyle and Ingrid just got back," Rowan explained. "And they've brought someone with them."

"That must be Noelle," Felicia said.

"This Noelle doesn't need to be treated, does she?" Marina asked.

"She did look a bit roughed up, but Gyle is another story. He's pretty much falling apart. He's not in danger of dying or anything," he elaborated when a look of worry grew on Hawkeye's face. "But I'm sure he'd appreciate it if you didn't drag your feet."

Marina had just finished wrapping a bandage around Serena's leg. "I think that should do it." She wiped her forehead and guzzled down another bottle of water. She looked over Gabriella, Lupe, Serena, Mercedes, and Felicia to make sure she didn't overlook anything in her haste. "Then if I'm no longer needed here, I'll head over to Gyle. Rowan, grab my bag."

"But isn't Hawkeye doing a good enough job carrying it?"

"Haven't we already been through his situation?" Marina posed. "There's no need to make him work any harder than he has to right now. Besides, we're headed to the same place, aren't we? I might as well make use of you."

"The bossiness just never ends with you, does it?"

"I'll bet you'd be more subservient if it were one of these ladies asking. Still mad because I've got nothing for you to ogle?" she posed with a coy smile.

"Would it surprise you to hear me say yes?"

"No," Marina said curtly. "That would only tell me you have no shame."

"Well, I'm supposed to be keeping my hands and eyes to myself, so I'll say no," he said as he grabbed Marina's bag. He shouldn't have been surprised to find it was so heavy. "We're all supposed to be heading to the bridge. Gyle wants to talk to us."

"About what?" Marco asked.

"Noelle. She's Dr. Lucas's assistant. I told you we didn't have a chance of finding her."

"I'm impressed," Marina said. "He actually did it. Or lucked into it, I should say."

"Would it be a problem if I went there with you?" Felicia asked.

"You don't plan on telling anyone about what you hear, do you?" Rowan asked.

"No. I still need to thank Gyle for helping me before."

Marina wore a skeptical expression, but Rowan was indifferent. "I don't see a problem, but then again, I'm not the boss. I don't know if the others will allow you to stay." He, Hawkeye, Marina, and Felicia rose for the door. "You coming, Marco?"

"In a minute," Marco assured him.

"All right, then. Lead the way, Princess," Rowan said to Marina mockingly as he ceremoniously gestured toward the door.

"Don't forget the water," Marina ordered as she, Hawkeye, and Felicia went on their way. A quick snap of her fingers accompanied by an exaggeratedly regal wrist-flick told Rowan she was more than willing to take on the role if he was offering it.

"Well, that backfired," he muttered to himself. He crammed the bottles into her bag then faced Marco. "Promise me you won't do anything stupid after you're done here."

"I told you before, I won't make any promises," Marco said firmly.

It wasn't exactly what Rowan wanted to hear, but Marina's princess-like beckoning resonated through the halls, preventing him from doing anything further. "If that's how you feel, then I guess I'll leave you to do your thing." He left the room no less harried by Marina's calls.

Marco sat for a moment to collect himself. The four girls sitting in front of him almost seemed illusory. He had waited for so long for concrete information about what had happened in the flightstone mines; he had internalized fifteen years of concern for his family's safety that it was overwhelming for him to have lucked into meeting Gabriella, Lupe, Serena, and Mercedes.

"So then, you really were a slave in the flightstone mines?" Lupe asked.

"You didn't believe him?" Serena wondered.

"It just… I can see that he looks like us, but it's hard to believe he was the same kid that got away all those years ago. We only managed to get away because of the earthquakes."

"Tell me about them," Marco led. "What's been happening in the mines recently?"

"They've been working us harder than ever," Mercedes said. "They told us that they'd been getting so many orders for flightstones that they'd work us to death if it meant meeting their quota."

"By that time, there had already been a few light tremors in the mines," Serena said.

"At the time, it wasn't anything too serious," Mercedes went on. "We continued working, occasionally moving to other parts of the mines when the ones we were in caved in."

"But then, the earthquakes started growing stronger and more destructive," Gabriella said. "It got to be so bad that mines two through five started reporting casualties. But we were still forced to work, even in those conditions."

"Yes, I read the article in the Empyrean Daily," Marco said. "What's happened since then?"

"It became clear that we couldn't get any mining done, so we were corralled into mines one and six until the quakes stopped," Lupe explained. "We didn't dare try to escape then like some of the others did. The slaveholders didn't hesitate to shoot those that tried."

"So then, how did you escape?" Marco asked.

"It was after we'd returned to our assigned mines," Lupe began. "Everyone was sure the earthquakes were just a freak occurrence, so when they started up again, everyone, including our masters were taken by surprise. Everyone started panicking and soon the whole mine devolved into chaos. Serena and I were among those that used the confusion to slip away."

"It was the same situation for me," Gabriella said. "Getting away from the mine was the easy part. We still had to sneak around all of the watchtowers and sentries until we made it to the cargo airships. Some of the people in my group weren't lucky enough to make it, but those of us that did stole one of the cargo airships and fled in the life rafts to some of the nearby islands."

"The four of us aren't actually from the same mine," Serena clarified. "Lupe and I are from mine two, Gabriella was in mine three, and Mercedes was in mine four."

"Mine four?" Marco repeated. "Tell me, Mercedes, did you know a girl named Ophelia? She was most likely with another sickly older woman."

"I knew of her," Mercedes said. "But I never saw her with anyone else."

"You… didn't?"

"I spoke to her briefly when we were moved to mine one," Mercedes explained.

"How was she doing? Was she hurt in any of the earthquakes? Was she scared at all?" The questions would have kept coming if Mercedes hadn't already begun speaking.

"She was doing fine when I spoke to her. She looked no worse than anyone else there. She was more concerned about you than herself."

"What did she say?"

"She said she hoped you didn't intend to go back to the mines for her."

"Why not?"

"After you managed to escape, more watchtowers were added around the mines," Gabriella said. "And when the earthquakes started, we were watched even more closely than usual."

"They plugged up the holes that allowed you to get away and things have only gotten stricter since then," Lupe said.

"She told me she didn't want to see you throw your life away trying to free her," Mercedes finished. "She actually wanted you to think she was dead so you'd never have a reason to go back."

"But now I know for certain that she's still alive and I won't sit by while she suffers," Marco declared. "I have to go back for her."

"You don't understand," Mercedes pleaded. "She doesn't want you to go back for her. She doesn't even want to see you."

"It's true," Gabriella said. "It's something all of the slaves have convinced themselves of. After you escaped, you gave a lot of the others a sense of hope that they could get out like you did. Many tried, but none of them succeeded. Every attempt resulted in stricter security being implemented."

The four girls lifted their shirt sleeves and revealed a serial number branded on their shoulder. They simultaneously parted their hair to reveal a collar of discoloration around their necks.

"They started branding us to keep track of who was out in the mines and when," Serena said. "And they started restraining us with chains, even while we worked. They reduced our food portions and the whippings became more frequent, sometimes for no reason at all. We really were nothing more than cattle to them."

"After a while, everyone began seeing you as a source of their misfortune," Lupe said. "Your escape made life that much harder for those of us that weren't as lucky as you."

Marco couldn't properly articulate the feeling of sorrow he had after hearing their tale. A simple apology didn't seem like enough to repent for how hard he had made the lives of his brethren. But it was the only thing that his mind could come up with that was remotely coherent.

"I'm sorry for everything that you've gone through," Marco said. "I truly am. But there's no way I could have known what would have happened or I would have stayed."

"You don't need to apologize," Gabriella said. "You'd have to be naïve to think any of the others would have passed up on a chance at freedom. We sure didn't. We fled and left our loved ones behind as well."

"We have no intention of ever going back there," Serena said. "It may be selfish, but there's no shame in admitting that you were only looking out for yourself. Everyone else is."

Marco didn't like the way Serena put it, but he also couldn't deny that she was telling the truth. The human instinct for self-preservation wasn't a foreign concept to him. Even as a child in the mines, he was always a little more concerned with his own safety than that of others. At the time, he felt silently ashamed for it. Now he felt disgusted by it because of the selflessness his family displayed to aid in his escape. To hear that the same inner demon corrupted the values of the other slaves hurt him more than he could have ever imagined.

"Do you ladies have a place to stay?" Marco asked. "We could always shelter you until we find a place for you."

"It's okay," Serena said. It was a mutual feeling between the four of them. "We know you have more important things to be doing than taking care of us."

"It feels strange to be out of the Northwest Region after all that time," Lupe said. "The freedom is overwhelming, really. Is this how you felt, Marco?"

"I was lucky enough to have Captain Zack come across me and even luckier that he so graciously took me in," Marco said. "He and Mrs. Galewind helped me through my integration period."

"Then I guess we have each other to rely on for ours," Mercedes said.

"I don't think it'll be that bad," Gabriella determined. "We'll be just like everyone else before we know it."

"Don't let me hold you up then," Marco said. "Thank you for all of the information. You've been a big help."

"If I never have to relive those memories again, it'll be too soon," Lupe determined.

Marco stood up and led the girls to storage where he insisted they take some supplies with them before departing. They couldn't help but get greedy when they stocked up and Marco was more than willing to offer them as much as they could carry. Their arms were nearly overflowing with water, rations, and fresh clothes when they stood outside of the Stealth Breeze.

"Thank you," the four girls said in unison with a slight bow of their heads.

"It was the least I could do," Marco said.

"I know you're not going to listen to us when we said you shouldn't go back," Gabriella said. "I hope you can get your sister out of there safely."

Marco nodded, almost like he was psyching himself up. At the moment, his brain was doing mental hurdles trying to figure out how he could succeed when the odds were so against him and he had other obligations. It was just one more thing to add to his already cluttered mind.

Whereas Noelle was gentle when she appraised Gyle for any torso injuries, Marina was decidedly less so. He was sitting on a low crate while she knelt beside him running her fingers down his ribs. Ingrid clamped her hands on his chest and back to try and keep him sitting up straight after he'd squirmed in pain one too many times for Marina's liking.

"Seriously, Gyle," Marina complained. "You're a complete mess. How does someone like you get hurt this badly?"

"I damn near broke my ribs and that's the only thing you have to say?" Gyle fumed.

"I find it hard to show sympathy to someone who went out and pretty much asked for this to happen."

"I hope you don't think I'm enjoying this," Gyle said. "And for a nurse, you don't seem all that concerned about causing me pain right now."

"How am I going to know the extent of your injuries if I can't see where and how much it hurts? I'm sorry to inform you that I don't have x-ray vision. Though if I did, I'd use it to see if you had anything rolling around in that thick skull of yours." She pulled out a bottle of medicine from her bag. "Drink this. It should dull the pain a bit and give you some of your strength back."

Gyle stared at the red mix, sloshed it around, then popped the cork off and wafted in a bit of the fumes. Feeling his stomach turn was something he wholly expected and thus wasn't surprised when it did. It didn't look even remotely appetizing. He decided it was best to down it in one gulp, so he tipped his head back and almost gagged as the syrupy tincture slithered down his throat. It was even more unsettling for him to feel the entire mass hit his stomach fluids with a resounding splunk.

"You've got to admit, Gyle, you did exercise some pretty piss-poor judgment," Rowan said. "I don't think that was a good time to go running off after a girl you barely even know."

"You're one to talk, Rowan," was all Ingrid had to say to give him pause for a mental backpedalling.

"So maybe what I did was stupid," Gyle admitted. "But I did find Noelle. If we'd kept going with Dad's plan, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere." That earned him a sideways glance from his father. "You guys are just mad at me because for once my running off actually got us some results. And there's no need to blame Felicia for what I did," he added. "It wasn't her fault."

"She is the reason you ended up getting caught," Marina said. "I'd say that qualifies this being her fault."

"No," Gyle retorted. "Those guys grabbed me because, according to Felicia, I look like a girl."

It took a moment for the sentence to register with them. Ingrid, Rowan, and Marina stopped what they were doing to get a good look at him. Ingrid embarrassedly averted her eyes, Marina made an obvious gesture of agreement with Felicia's belief, and Rowan said, "I don't even have to squint and I can see it."

"I think you look like a boy," Hawkeye said.

"At least someone's on my side," Gyle said, harshly eyeing a sideways glancing Ingrid, oblivious Marina, and amused Rowan. "But I guess I could use a haircut."

Zack approached his son with his knife in hand and started shearing off the extraneous hair from Gyle's head. When he was finished, Gyle's hair returned to the just-above-shoulder length he normally found himself with. The replacement of his aviator's cap to his head finished his much-desired makeover.

"There you go," Rowan praised. "You don't look nearly as feminine as you did before."

"If it makes you feel any better, you've amassed quite a few battle scars, Gyle," Marina noticed. "Aren't trophies like this a thing with you humans? The people that crashed above the Kingdom certainly prided in theirs."

"I guess they do make you look tougher," Felicia admitted.

"You really think so?" Gyle asked, getting excited.

Rowan sneered as he added his caveat. "But only marginally so."

"Not looking tough isn't so bad," Gyle said, trying to bend Rowan's jab into a positive. "It makes people underestimate me, which makes it that much more satisfying when I do come out on top."

"I'm sure Beatrice's men didn't expect it," Felicia said. Noelle silently agreed.

"So those were the guys who were swiping women in the eastern regions?" Rowan asked.

"Yeah," Gyle said. "They were trying to find Beatrice's daughter to get the location of her treasure out of her."

"Treasure?" Rowan wondered. "I didn't know pirates actually buried their treasure. I sure as hell don't know where they'd put it. Most of the islands I've been to have an obvious lack of open land and those that do stick out like a sore thumb."

"Why not Empyria?" Ingrid posed. "We may not have known about it until recently, but there's no reason to believe she didn't."

"The way Julie described her did make her out to be a pretty daring person," Gyle said. "Not many people would actually try something like descending beneath the islands. But that doesn't sound unlike something she'd try."

"You're probably right," Marina said. "Even if they knew it was on Empyria, there's no way they'd be able to search for it themselves without a hint of some sort. I'm not sure anyone who's lived on these islands for so long could fathom just how large a planet is."

"How large is large?" Rowan asked.

"Picture the largest island you can think of," Noelle suggested.

Gyle, Ingrid, Rowan, Hawkeye, Zack, and Felicia each closed their eyes. In the middle of Noelle's demonstration, Marco came in and looked puzzled as to why they had their eyes closed. Marina quickly caught him up on the goings-on and he joined them in their exercise.

"Now increase its size by a factor of one million," Noelle said.

She could see their brains short-circuiting trying to imagine it. There wasn't a single mouth that wasn't pursed or a single nose that wasn't wrinkled.

"I can't," Gyle admitted. "My brain can't make sense of something that big."

"It really does need to be seen to be believed," Noelle confessed.

"Marco, what took you so long to get here?" Ingrid asked.

"I wanted to make sure the girls were prepared before they were sent off," Marco answered.

"Anyway, now that you're here," Gyle began. "I can formally introduce everyone to Noelle. She's Dr. Lucas's assistant."

"Gyle has told me about everything you're doing," Noelle continued. "Allow me to express my thanks for offering your help to Dr. Lucas."

"Of course," everyone said in some fashion or another.

"So…" Rowan meandered. "Where can we find him?"

Noelle did nothing but point straight up at the ceiling.

"Above the clouds?" Hawkeye guessed.

"It wasn't something that even crossed our minds," Ingrid acknowledged.

"What about the Corporation's?" Zack wondered. "Wouldn't they have thought to look everywhere they possibly could for him?"

"The upper sky is a very dangerous altitude for humans," Noelle explained. "There is very little breathable air that high in the sky. Humans can't stay there for very long unless they acclimatize their bodies to it."

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Rowan said. "He's proven himself to be a wicked genius at hiding himself. Why not do it in a place where humans have no right being?"

"That doesn't bode well for me," Marina said. "We naiads already have a hard time breathing the air at this altitude. It looks like the Elder was right when she said the outside world wasn't any place for us. If there's any silver lining, the cold at that height will give me a reprieve from having to constantly drink water all the time."

"But it's so… simple," Gyle said dejectedly. "I can't deny I was expecting more."

"You have to give him more credit than that," Marco said. "He managed to outsmart everyone with his choice. It'd be more appropriate to call it subtle brilliance."

"When you head to Dr. Lucas, you have to be careful," Noelle said. "Take your ship out into open skies before ascending so you don't have anyone following you."

"And you'll be going back by yourself?" Zack surmised.

"I have to go back to the island and reacquire the materials I was supposed to be getting, and can't leave the ship I came down here with. I may end up getting there after you."

"He will let us see him, won't he?" Ingrid asked. "He might get suspicious without you there to vouch for us."

"You'll be fine as long as you have the vial," Noelle said as she rose from her chair.

Zack offered to walk her out and Gyle followed behind him with Felicia. Marina wasn't keen on allowing him to strain himself so soon, but he felt he should have been the one to walk her out. Marina's point was proven from the way Felicia ended up supporting him while they were on their way outside. Their leaving prompted those who were still in the bridge to scatter to the cabins where their beds awaited them. Outside, whereas Noelle immediately set off for the city, Felicia instead faced Gyle, who reciprocated an expression of bewilderment.

"I feel really bad about getting you hurt like this," she said somberly.

"Oh this?" Gyle asked. "Don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it? You couldn't even make it out here on your own."

"I'm glad it was me and not you."

His comment made a subtle smile of adoration cross her face. "I never did thank you for getting me out of there. This is the second time you saved my life."

"Really, you don't have to," Gyle said.

"Well, I'm doing it anyway," Felicia said in a defiant tone. "Before when I tried to thank you for the Celestial Cruise, you said it was your crew who deserved the thanks. This time, it was all you."

"You got me there," Gyle relented.

"Good luck with your travels," she said. She went to give him a farewell hug, but he retreated slightly. She cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow.

"I'm not sure my body could handle a hug right now," he admitted.

"Oh," she said disappointedly. "How about a kiss, then?"

She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Gyle flinched a bit and could feel the blush flowing into his cheeks.

"I hope we'll meet again sometime, little hero." With that, she spun around and continued on the path into the city. Gyle raised a hand to his cheek and glanced at his father who had the faintest of creases in his mouth.

"Little hero?" Zack asked with a light chuckle.

Gyle would have said something in response if he weren't currently a bundle of nerves.

"Embarrassed?" Zack asked.

"Can you blame me? She took me completely by surprise. A little more warning would have helped."

"She looks like she really likes you."

"Is it wrong that I don't feel the same way about her?"

Zack patted his son on the head. "You're still young, Gyle. Give it some time."

He went back into the Stealth Breeze and left Gyle to stare at Felicia's back as she reentered the city. He did as his father suggested and waited, believing a delayed feeling of affection for her would surface.

"…Nothing," Gyle said.

Even still, he continued to watch her as she disappeared over the horizon. Somewhere inside, he felt he at least owed her that much.

Author's Note: After nearly three years of working on this, I can finally say I have a completed story on my profile! It certainly is a good feeling to close the book on a project. Of course this is only the first part... I've found that this is going to take much longer to complete than I anticipated. I'm going to take a couple of weeks and work on the chapters for the next part, so expect it to begin at the end of the month or so.

Of course, your thoughts on the story thus far are greatly appreciated, so don't be afraid to click that review button.