Mushrooms at Home after the Sunset

The air was warm and stale, and it felt like the whole world was dirty and dusty. A lot of work gets done at that time of day. People are just starting to wear out and tire down, but are still focused on what they’re doing. It’s too late for a last cup of coffee, and not late enough to quit work and think about home and dinner.

I looked out the window. The land below was thinly developed and mostly rural, yet the roadways were already packed with fast moving cars – those commuters that arrive early to leave early. Each has an individual story, but many of them despise the rush hour with deep passion. Like the office workers, I missed being home. I too would get back tonight, but not until long after they had forgotten their workday, their commute, their evening-meal, and all the world outside.

Even though the crew will take care of the ship, I also will have plenty of work after we arrive. After they have scrubbed, stowed, secured, and taken their leave, I will lock the building and the gates. Alone, I’ll feel an urgency to get my own work done. There’s a pleasant family grocery store on my way from the airfield. Later, I will open my door, and smell the stillness of an air-conditioned suite that’s been nicely cleaned, but without being lived in. I will leave my suitcase behind, just inside, as I shut the lock. I’ll bring my food sack to the kitchen and slice onions and mushrooms. They’ll cook slowly in olive oil, chilli, garlic, and finally, I’ll whisk in some cream. The flat will take on life as life takes place inside it. I’ll eat slowly with French bread and a practical (inexpensive) but flavorful wine recommended by the fantastically long-bearded and dramatically arm-waving shopkeeper. Many people would watch TV to stave off loneliness, but I will be almost overwhelmed just from the busy noise of my thoughts.

I left my reverie and went back to my paperwork. The clock measured the passage of time, but I took no note of it. At some point Wazn requested food in his inimitably feline way: his words were so unintelligible, and yet his intent so unmistakable. I looked out the window again. We were still over roads bordering fields. The vehicles below were tightly packed and moving slowly. The cool of evening had come and the feeling of dirt and dust was gone. There was a new freshness in the air.

I fed Wazn, and put away my papers. I didn’t want to miss the sunset. I love to watch the progression of colors, especially how at its height we pass through a different mood every second. Now, the afternoon softens. The sky becomes deep. The sunset bursts. Dull pastels appear and then ignite, brightening into fiery orange and pink. Orange becomes fierce yellow and glowing magenta. Then a corner is turned, and the hot colors cool to a heavy pink. The magenta darkens to deep maroon. Purples slide to violets. The first star appears. Violet fades to black. Stars appear in pairs, dozens, scores, and then it is night.

A parallel transformation takes place on the ground below. The tired landscape leaves behind the drabs and duns of the afternoon and takes on deeper, fresher blues and greens. The lights of the roadways are augmented by more and more city lights. Eventually the land below is pitch black, but illuminated with the delicate lace jewelry of millions of tiny lights.

Even from the sky, even in the dark, the familiar landmarks of home came into view. We came in low over our own field. As we left the last road behind something caught my eye. Three identical black pickups with their lights on were parked on the side of the road next to the perimeter fence. As I looked back, they pulled onto the road in formation, and accelerated towards the city. They struck me as a bit out of place, but I see stranger things all the time. “Actually,” I thought out loud, “I should probably mention odd things along these lines to Franchomme.”

Wazn looked up at me when he heard me speak, and that reminded me to get him ready to disembark.

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Cloud Kayaks

We have invented so many ways to fly; some are far more practical than we would have thought flight they could be (I refer to the airplane).  But think of it.  We have reached upwards with balloons, hang gliders, rockets, jet packs, air ships (of course) and more.  And yet, despite the wealth of invention, and despite how useful and interesting each of these solutions are in their own way, none of these is really like when we fly in our dreams.
Flying in dreams, my dreams at least, is a bit like swimming, although usually without the exertion.  I was thinking about that one day, how air is and isn’t like water, even in dreams, when it occurred to me that I would like to row my way across the sky.  And then I started having ideas.  Sky rowing could be a sport.  I was looking for a way to make a business with airships as travel entertainment, but an entertainment sport is far better!
Instead of dreaming about big airships that compete with cruise lines, I could be thinking small.  How small could a single person airship be?  How maneuverable?  The answers just take a bit of math.  A rowable hard-bodied airship would be like a kayak in the sky.  I wouldn’t want it to be like a blow up raft that flexes with each stroke, with a clumsy look and feel.  We don’t use hot air, helium, or (forbid the mention of it) hydrogen to displace air in our ships.  In a recent feat of mad engineering, we now use nearly pure vacuums which we control with powerful, light, efficient pumps.  Since we have fixed volume, and control our mass with pumps, it means that our ships are really much more like submarines than most blimps or balloons.  This same principle could be used with my small craft.
In order for people to row air efficiently adequate force must be generated with each stroke.  So the oars must be broad enough to capture a large cross section of air – they could be giant hoops of bright material with light handles.  How beautiful they would be.  I can see a fleet of colorful ships rowing through the air at dawn with the flowing colorful cloth of the oars trailing behind.

Gold Ballast Charters

Upside down and inside out is not good for an airship business.  They had no clue what they were doing.  Not only did my predecessors not have the business sense to disembark with good chances of success, when their crazy idea worked anyway, they didn’t understand why.  They saw the airships as a transportation business.  We could be cheaper.  “Just ride the jet streams.  Easy to scale to any desired size without worrying about infrastructure.”  Cheaper?  They should have gone bankrupt before they started.  We have a case here of absolutely crazy, completely wrong, and unfathomably lucky.  A travel business!?
Consider the clipper ship.  Like an airship, a clipper ship has no fuel costs, and there aren’t many clipper ships out there, because like our airships, they make not a whit of practical sense.  But there are some.  They are the epitome of “the voyage is the destination,” and so should we be.
Didn’t our previous nutty captains notice that all of our customers can use gold for ballast?  Our business is firmly entertainment – not transportation. It needs a marketing do-over as such.  Hopefully I can attract more than a few super-rich eccentrics.  I certainly enjoy flying, as do our customers, and I think a much broader lot of people would, given the opportunity.
I’m re-orienting the business to something that comes closer to competing with cruise ships.  We don’t have a ship today that can carry hundreds of passengers on a pleasure tour for a weekend, but we’ll get there.  The shipyard is already looking into it.
And what have I been doing to put us on an even keel?  Studying the modern clipper ship tour business, trying to figure out Google Adwords, and, of course, writing about it all for you in a blog.
And then I had another idea.  Instead of thinking big, I started thinking small. I’ll tell you about it soon.

Overshadow

The unfortunate business of the threat overshadowed some things that went well on the trip. Plankt, far from being intimidated was now determined to defy the extortionist, and did so by spending time among the clouds. He took a number of leisurely rides with us to admire the wonderful rugged country in the region. He loved the ship Silver Moonlight. Franchomme didn’t accompany us on those trips.

At first, I fell into the common trap of thinking that it was about me, remembering the unsettling interrogation, in which I don’t think I satisfactorily answered any of his questions. But, Franchomme did take a ride near the end of my stay. “I do not like the idea of this, but I think I may learn something valuable.” “What?” “I don’t know yet.” “Oh – of course.” He spoke casually with various members of the crew. None of them got grilled though. “How is it that you know Plankt both professionally and personally?” I asked, hoping for a good story. I didn’t get one. “It is very remote out here and there aren’t many detectives. Whatever happens, I know about. My job, as Lieutenant, is to manage our local station. I take care of everything from kittens in trees to drunk drivers and robberies. Also, everyone out here knows everyone else. That makes this crime especially interesting. It must be hard to pull off out here.” Since we were talking about the problem anyway, I tried an open question. “What next?” “Well, it’s generally not a good idea to give in to an extortionist or blackmailer, because they just keep making demands. Plankt has made it clear he has no intention of paying. However, I almost wish he would, because often we can nab them when they try to collect.” I asked him if the reason he didn’t want to come on the earlier trips with Plankt was the threat to the ship. “No of course not. I wouldn’t have let either of you fly if there was an immediate danger. The criminal hasn’t yet provided the exact terms for payment. There is no danger for awhile – any incident would ruin his chances of getting money. No, honestly, the reason I avoided your ship is because it makes me a little queasy.” Oh, so that was it. Lots of people are like that. I offered to bring the ship back as soon as he was ready, and he was.

You may be wondering how the crew reacted to the situation. They were surprisingly stoic. Vysby’s reaction was even more unexpected. She was enthusiastic and excited by the prospect of determining who was threatening us. “It’s real mystery. I’m going to solve it.” she announced.

Johannes, a younger member of the crew was one of the few that expressed discomfort at the situation. Johannes was a great gambler; I was well aware of his ability to keep a poker face, but he wasn’t playing any games at dinner that night. “I can’t believe this. I liked this job. I don’t want to leave.” “Then don’t” someone responded. “And die for it? Not worth it.” “Oh – ignore that rubbish.” came back the response. He gave me an uncomfortable look. “If you decide to leave, I understand. There would obviously be no hard feelings, and I would be happy to rehire you later if you wish.” He just looked even more uncomfortable.

Franchomme and the Bad News

I wasn’t the only actor enjoying my show. Everyone in the room was playing their own role in their own play. I wasn’t the only person in costume either. There was a small mustachioed man, already seated, dressed as a police officer. “I know better than to make assumptions” I thought to myself. Mr. Plankt wore a conservative business suit, but with a tie of such blazing magenta that it overshadowed any possible achievement of seriousness the suit may have hoped for with its dull greyness.

Mr. Plankt had been saying polite things, but now he was about to move to more serious matters. “Everything was grand here until just recently.” “Yes?” I prompted. “That’s why Lieutenant Franchomme is here.” “Good to meet you.” “The same.” “Are you friends, or maybe business partners?” “We met years ago, and are now on a first name basis. I would agree that we are now friends, wouldn’t you, Napo?” “Definitely” answered the Lieutenant. “However”, continued Plankt, “It is a serious matter that now concerns us, professional for you and Napo, although personal for me. To come to the point: I have received an extortion letter.” “Aha.”

Napo really was a genuine police officer, and my customer had been threatened if he did not pay the extortionist. How was I involved? A threat had been made to bring down one of my ships with Mr. Plankt aboard if a ransom was not paid.

Franchomme was speaking. “Mr. Xevzev.” “Yes?” “I also believe this is not the first such threat to one of your ships.” “Really?” “Yes. I think there might have been such a threat before your brother’s accident.”

Now, my show dissolved. I felt anger, sadness, confusion, and seriousness all at once. The waves of conflicting emotions passed over my face. I pulled my composure back, and forced myself back into my role. Captain. Cool. Clearheaded.

Liutenant Franchomme apologized for “the stress this must surely put on me”, and started telling his story. He struck me as shrewd, more than a little pompous, and possibly in possession of a dry wit.

“Here’s the part that doesn’t make sense.” “Yes?” “It’s would be very easy for Plankt here to just ignore the extortion and not travel by your -um- airship.” “Hhhm.” “So that means that the threat is also to you.” “I don’t get it.” “Who gets hurt if Plankt just starts traveling a bit more normally? I don’t mean to offend.” “No offense taken. I lose business.” “Right. Something doesn’t add up, because they’re extorting the wrong person. They could have just gone directly to you. Perhaps they tried to? That would make much more sense. It would be good to figure this all out before they make their next move. So … I would like to interview you rather thoroughly on this matter.”

He wanted to board my ship, so the two of us went, without Plankt, and then interview me he did. Thoroughly. Unfortunately I knew nothing of use, and felt a bit slow on the uptake too.

The Costume Plays a Part

Only when the last hour arrived, did I realize that my dress costume made a parody of a drum major’s parade outfit. The goal had been to make it look more cheerful than a naval uniform, while maintaining echos of a 19th century aesthetic. I had worried that it would look too military or too outdated, but avoiding those things gave me a marching band look. At least there were no feathers.

Second thoughts and discomfort snuck in slowly, and then flowed freely. “Balderdash” I said aloud with as much conviction as I could, and then continued the thought a bit more calmly “A show’s an act, the costume plays a part. Without it I’m just in a different costume playing a different character.”  Wazn the cat switched his tail while watching me.

I knew that if I felt uncomfortable, those around me would detect it, something would seem off, and my awkwardness would be genuine. On the other hand, if I felt natural, it would all look good and no one would question a thing. The costume was crisply pressed. I took off the jacket and hat, and lightly crumpled them. I did a no-doubt-very-humourous little dance to loosen up the pants, put it all back on, and reevaluated. The result was strangely effective. It really looked and felt more genuine. Wazn shifted his attention to the window.

The heat of late afternoon was too much for such heavy fabric, but it was only for a short while. We berthed.

Within a few minutes, while the crew handled everything with elegant expertise, I came down from the ship and was standing in front of the eccentric Mr. Plankt. All my customers are eccentric, of course. But then, the greeting that left his lips was the least expected he could have uttered, which was, no doubt, his intention. “Saluton! Kiel vi fartas?”

Where did he learn that, I wondered? How did he even know what our language was? Why would he care? Fortunately, while I was thinking these things, I reflexively answered him with the correct response and protocol. After that, he grinned broadly, switched to English, and invited me to follow him in. The crew continued their own show while I performed mine.

Soon we passed through large doors; I was treated as an honored guest. “I really like the beautiful ship you brought. We usually take Sailing Cloud.” Sailing Cloud is the official name for The Barge. “This one has style though. Is it available? Or do you just use it for company business? Your brother never mentioned it.” That last comment demanded slow consideration, but I answered the questions. “That is Silver Moonlight. It is one of the most beautiful ships in the world, and I chose to bring it precisely because I knew you would like it. The only drawback is that it is much smaller than Sailing Cloud, including the passenger quarters.”

It’s difficult to talk about one thing while you think about another. It can also be potentially embarrassing if you mix thoughts with words and say the wrong thing. Nonetheless it’s a useful skill, and although I’m not very expert at it, practice helps, and I make the habit of practicing at times when mistakes are mostly harmless. Over the next few minutes I practiced.

The Rummy Family

Some of the crew gamble incessantly and some intermittently, just as some abstain out of principle, and others simply have other interests, such as the guitarist. Another example of such a character who was on the airship for that voyage is Vyzby.

Vyzby is interesting to the point of incomprehensible and beyond. While the others are for the most point happy to play obscure games with extremely complex rules, she pushes this tendency to such an extreme that she mostly plays solitaire.

She eschews standard card decks for ones that she designs and makes herself (and the same for non-card games as well). That particular evening she was occupying a small table with a huge mound of what looked to be at least dozen decks of cards, although it turns out that each and every card was unique. Some of the cards contained only a simple large unadorned numeral, but others had glyphs and characters written in scripts some of which I could guess at, and others of which I could not.

“How do you play?” I asked. “It’s fun.” was the slightly orthogonal answer. “What’s that card?” I countered, but shouldn’t have because the answer was simply “seventy-three” which didn’t make sense to me. I watched in silence for a while hoping to understand through observation and the application of logic. There were four “draw” piles, three face-up, and one face-down. I couldn’t discern the pattern of when a card was drawn from which. There was a discard pile, and her “hand” seemed to be a large number of face-up cards frequently rearranged. Sometimes sets were clearly melded in sets of three, and placed on the side. After I watched for a while, I was informed that I probably wouldn’t figure out the rules until I could read the cards, at which point it would be “easy”. After that, the explanation started coming out, but it was intermixed with strategic notes which made it hard follow. I could tell by now that this game was related to the Rummy family and I had a starting point.

“I like how you call it the Rummy Family.” she responded to one of my question-observations “but if it’s a family, this is that cousin who suddenly moved to a distant country where he was an exchange student 20 years ago, because he finally realized that he feels more kinship with his host family there than his actual relations.” That’s typical for a conversation with Vyzby. “Look: here in the Chinese characters I only have the 7, 12, and 28. Plus, I have the 12 in Mayan numerals. So, I want to keep all of them, because there’s a lot of combinations that could work …”

At last, I decided to go because it was time for me to do some writing, but I still hadn’t figured out the game. I asked if Vyzby could spare the time later to teach me to “read the cards” properly. At that, she was clearly very pleased.