If you missed the start of Alien Secrets, Flight of the Kestrel book 2, here is the link. I can’t show you a picture of Reuel, because there isn’t one, but he’s tall and slim, bright pink, and has spines down the centre of his head instead of hair.
The following day it was Reuel's turn for shore leave. He'd been to Caspar once before. He could walk unhindered, since the gravity was similar to Altair. The Casparan spaceport looked like spaceports everywhere, except for the predominance of green. The control tower in particular was highlighted by a lurid lime green paint.
The spaceport concessions were generic and expensive, so Reuel headed towards the city centre. There were one or two things he wanted to buy. The overcast sky was a good thing, as the presence of the two suns could be overpowering. The weather was pleasantly warm and dry, so he rejected the spaceport shuttle bus and chose to walk. He remembered it took him less than an hour on his previous visit.
There was no open countryside: businesses and houses stretched all the way from the city to the spaceport, although those nearer the spaceport were at a disadvantage. They endured all the noise and smell without getting the benefit from the passengers. Most people jumped straight on the shuttle bus when they disembarked.
He passed several children playing with a ball, the same scene you would see on most planets in some form or other. What made this scene strange to him was the size of the children. Altairians were two metres tall on average, whereas Casparans were at most a metre and a half fully grown, their children were proportionately smaller.
Reuel thought they looked like dolls, or the miniature robots some people used because they were less conspicuous around the house. He slowed down to watch their game, but they noticed him and stopped playing to stare.
Oh dear, he thought. Perhaps I should have worn my hat.
He decided to press on. Away from the spaceport, orange vegetation and multicoloured flowers with orange leaves started to appear in front of the houses and in strips outside businesses. He decided the Casparans must like everything tidy and neat, as the plants grew in regimented lines.
There was little individuality in people's gardens, except for the occasional new plant. Otherwise they were all the same, as though manufactured en masse. It was the same in the city centre: formal flower beds and patches of orange grass, all in strict order.
The people were a little like that too. All very formal in their movements, bowing to one another as they met. No one appeared to wander about but followed each other in lines. Reuel joined a line to see where it went but stepped out because of the disapproving looks. He bowed, arms out with his palms up to apologise, even though he didn't know what for.
He remembered a particular white fluffy sweet he tasted last time he was here. He looked around the shops to see if he could find it again, but couldn't remember the name. He got on well because his manners were impeccable - he bowed to everyone he met and flattered everyone he spoke to. He found his sweets and bought enough to last a while and allow him to share.
After finding his sweets, Reuel found a cafe selling food he could eat and sat down for a snack. He watched the passers-by with interest. The men's tunics were shorter than the women's and of brighter colours. To his surprise, no one wore green. It was the Casparan's favourite colour, so much around them was painted green, but not the clothes. The waiter arrived with his order.
'Excuse me for being an ignorant tourist,' Reuel bowed, 'but why does no one wear green clothes? I thought it was the Casparan's favourite colour.'
The waiter laughed and bowed back. 'No sir, you have not understood. Casparans are green, everything that belongs to Casparans is green, but Casparans belong to no one. No green on them. Except the officials, who serve the people.'
Reuel smiled. 'How wonderful! I like that very much.'
'You are welcome, sir. Most people from outside do not understand. We are amused when they wear green.'
'It is well then that I did not wear my uniform, which is dark green.' The waiter laughed with him. He continued, 'I only have an hour or two here. What would you recommend as places to see?'
The waiter paused in thought. 'Caspar has many beautiful places, but they are away from the spaceport. Perhaps you would like to admire our beautiful buildings. If you take the street to the right and turn right at the next corner, a short walk will bring you to the main square. The buildings are nothing like this,' he waved to indicate the local buildings. 'The government buildings, the art gallery, Independence Hall, even the new hospital behind, they are a showcase of Casparan achievement. We are very proud of them.'
Reuel bowed again and slipped the waiter a few coins. 'I thank you for the advice, and will certainly go when I have eaten.'
The mention of the hospital made him think of Tanu. Once he saw the square he could go and see how he was getting on.
The nurse at the reception desk looked bored and harassed. She wore white, with a motif like a coiled green ribbon on both shoulders. Reuel bowed.
'Excuse me, I am sure you are busy, but I would be grateful for your help in locating my friend, who was brought in yesterday.'
She looked up from her screen and her eyebrows rose as she saw his skin colour, height, and his cranial spines. Reuel smiled and raised a hand to his spines.
'I hope my spines do not alarm you, sister. I am from Altair, and delighted to be on your lovely planet once again.' He decided to try flattery. 'As I passed through the main square on my way here I was impressed by the magnificent buildings, and by this hospital too. I have been on many planets and seen many sights, but none like this.'
She eyed him suspiciously. 'What impressed you the most, kind sir?'
'Oh, the carvings of course! Such detail, such intricacy. In places, it looks like lace. Have you seen the human fabric lace? It is fine threads woven together with knots to make a delicate trimming or a sheer covering on a garment. Tell me, what is the scene depicted over the entrance here?'
'It tells of the hero Shomestry who found the lifeweed plant that kills infection. It was the foundation of our modern medicine.'
Her work forgotten, the nurse was clearly captivated in her tale.
'He was injured in a battle and left behind when the army moved on, hidden beneath a bush. He stopped his bleeding with the leaves of the bush, packing them into his wounds as a dressing. When his wound did not fester and began to heal, he gathered as much as he could carry and dragged himself after the army.' She paused to wipe away a tear.
'When he caught up with them they were almost defeated. The next engagement would be the end. But with the lifeweed they found strength to evade the enemy for a few days while their wounds healed. The next battle was the end - but for the enemy!' She finished with a flourish and smiled at Reuel.
Reuel bowed deeply and put his hand on his heart. 'Dear sister, a truly moving story. Especially so for me, for my given name is Shom.' He showed her his identity badge. 'It is an honour to bear the name of a hero.'
The nurse bowed back and smiled. 'I am honoured to meet you, sir. Now let me see about your friend.'
He followed up her smile. 'My friend's name is Tanu and he came here from the PACT ship Kestrel.'
Her smile turned into a frown when the results of her search came up on her computer screen.
'There is something wrong here,' she said. 'There is a gap where his records should be. Not an omission, but a deletion. There was a record under the name Tanu but it has been removed rather inexpertly.' She sniffed. 'Very sloppy work indeed. I shall refer this to the quality control department.'
She bustled off down the hall and went into an office. A few moments later she returned. This time she was puzzled. 'There seems to be a problem with this Tanu's registration, and the people responsible are reluctant to cooperate. I will see to it myself. If you can come back tomorrow morning, I will have the information for you then.'
Reuel's face fell. 'Sadly I must leave this evening. May I leave my contact details with you for when you find him?'
Reuel gave her his contact details and moved away. He had no idea how to enquire further, and his shore leave was limited, so he headed back out to the street. He was thinking about where to go next when he heard a shout. Outside the hospital three people were getting into a large brown vehicle. One of them was Tanu, who had shouted when he recognised Reuel.
He waved, but the two men with him tried to push him inside. Wearing a grey jumpsuit, he was unsteady on his feet and grinning like he was drunk. Reuel waved back and started walking over, but one of the men intercepted him.
'I am sorry, but this man cannot see anyone now,' he said with a curt bow of his head. 'You can see him later.'
They all jumped in the vehicle and drove away. Reuel decided they seemed to know what they were doing, and Tanu seemed happy, so it was best to leave it there. He could make further enquiries when he returned to the Kestrel. Maybe that was where the men were taking him, as he seemed to have recovered.
By the afternoon of the second day repairs were almost complete. Darrow contacted Nefar from his office and asked him to find out when Tanu would be released. He came back with sad news.
'I am sorry Captain. The Casparans informed me Tanu died.'
'What? I thought you said we got here in time.'
'I thought we did. I asked to see the medical records, but there seems to be some difficulty. I also asked for the body to be returned to us, but they said it is their custom to cremate the dead immediately.'
Darrow was shocked. After the escape, rescue and space battle, Tanu was dead. There would be time for regret later, but for now he dismissed the thought.
'Never mind, doctor, you did your best.' Darrow switched the comm to broadcast. 'All hands prepare to leave in one hour. Recall all those on shore leave.'
He went to the bridge.
Parks was in sick bay when the doctor broke the news to the captain. As soon as Nefar came within reach, Parks grabbed his arm.
'Doc. Tell me straight, am I going to end up like Tanu?'
'No, no, Mr Parks.' Nefar shook his head and pulled his arm away. 'Your condition is not so serious. Your brain was not affected. His physiology was different to yours and his brain more susceptible to the damage.' Nefar paused for thought. 'Even so, I had managed to control the fits and slow the deterioration of his condition. I cannot understand why he should have died.'
'Maybe it was just one of those things. Can happen to anyone,' said Parks. 'Am I clear to go, Doctor?'
'Yes, you may go. And you may return to light duties. But no more adventures for a while, please.'
'OK, I’ll be good.' Parks smiled and headed to his cabin to get back into uniform.
Within minutes he was on the bridge, reporting to Darrow. He could have reported over the comm, but he wanted to see what was going on. He was surprised how much he had missed it. He often wished he could have time off and laze around, but when he got it he found it was never as good as he imagined. He was a man of action, and inactivity didn’t suit him.
Reuel came onto the bridge to speak to the captain. 'Sir, can I ask how Tanu is?' he said, saluting. 'Is he back on board yet?'
Darrow laid a hand on his arm. 'I’m sorry Ensign, Tanu didn’t make it. He died this morning.'
'But sir, that’s impossible. I saw him only two hours ago.'
Darrow frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'I went to the hospital to see if I could visit him and they told me he had been transferred. Then as I left, I saw him being helped into a brown vehicle. He saw me and waved. I assumed they were bringing him back here.'
Parks chipped in. 'Doctor Nefar said there was no reason for him to die. He said his condition was under control. Can we get a post-mortem?'
'I’m afraid not,' said Darrow. 'The information I received said they cremated him, according to their custom.'
Balitoth spoke up from the communications console. 'Excuse me Captain, but the Casparans do not use cremation. Their custom is to preserve the body. Each family stores their dead in underground vaults, and there are public vaults for those without family. They would never consider cremation, they think it dishonours the dead.'
'Are you sure?' Parks said.
Parks looked at Reuel and saw the deep concern in the movements of the other’s cranial spines. 'Wait! Suppose the Casparans are trying to find out the same thing the Bokans were? What is it this guy knows that’s so important? Captain, I trust Reuel more than I trust some voice over the comm channels, we’ve got to go after him.'
Darrow held up his hand. 'Now wait a minute. This man has given us enough trouble already. We’ve got clearance to leave. We don’t want to go upsetting the Casparans, you know what they’re like. They can turn the slightest thing into a major incident.'
'Sir, I think Tanu might be a major incident,’ Parks insisted. ‘We were sent to Boka to follow up a rumour they'd got hold of something new, a secret weapon. And there was certainly a stir. And what did we find? Tanu. Then we bring him to Caspar, and there’s another stir. I don’t believe in coincidence, I think he’s important.'
'Captain,' Reuel said, 'let me go back to the hospital. I spoke to a nurse there when I tried to visit Tanu. Perhaps she knows where they took him.'
Darrow considered a moment, and made his decision. He flipped open the comm. 'Commander Blackwell? Do you think you could do one more very thorough check on the engines? And if you found something else that needs fixing, it might just be the cause of us delaying our take-off?'
'Aye, aye, Captain.' Blackwell said. 'We can’t be too careful, can we?'
The captain turned back to the bridge crew. 'Lieutenant Balitoth, notify the authorities we are one crewman short and are sending out two people to find him. Lieutenant-Commander Hoy, go with Ensign Reuel. You both know Tanu. If anyone asks, you’re looking for a missing crewman on shore leave. And keep open comms, both of you. I want you in constant contact. Don’t come back until you hear from me, we might be hard pressed to find an excuse for you to go out again.'
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz