Duke Forecastle - Part 17
“A trick’s a fine thing, and turnabout is fair play,” said Captain Forecastle through the little window in the brig door. “We tamed an eagle, but you tamed a quakken. That’s what you meant on the quarterdeck.”
He could see the Anchorman’s white teeth, smiling through the darkness. “Somethin’ like that, Seaworld.”
“Why did you want me to croak you?” asked the Captain. “If we do, will it attack the ship?”
“Nay,” said the prisoner, still grinning, “I’m just in a rush ta see the City of Heroes.”
Forecastle snorted. “Do you think you’re qualified?”
The smile disappeared in the dark. “We croaked a fleet admiral and sunk th’enemy flagship,” said the man in the cell plainly. “If that don’t qualify, then th’ Titans’d better tell us why.”
Forecastle didn’t have a retort for that one. Instead, he reclaimed his line of questioning. “You’re not a seafarer unit, are you?” he said.
Chains rattled. “Nay. And neither are you.”
“No,” admitted Forecastle. “I’m not. And I’d wager you wish you could send a message home, to let them know that lubbers can tame double eagles, as well as quakkens.”
“I’d not take that wager,” said the prisoner, flashing his smile again. “Nor any wager, with a man what bets with a two-headed coin.”
Forecastle nodded and chuckled, acknowledging the wit. He was hoping he could build a rapport with the prisoner, to get the information he needed. And despite it all, he found he didn’t actually hate this man. War was war. If they’d been popped on the same side, the Anchorman warlord would have been his superior officer. Like as not, he would have preferred that to life under Chequer’s command.
“You did fight well, Warlord.” He touched the nick on his scalp. “I’ll allow as much. That was some, uh...daunting shooting you did.”
“Aye. And that was some fancy duckin’ ye did,” said the warlord in the cell.
“Yes,” said Forecastle, and unable to let the segue pass, “so, speaking of ducks...” The Anchorman laughed at that. “Do you want to tell me how you tame them?”
The prisoner kept on laughing for a while, then trailed off and grew quiet. Forecastle gave him some time to answer, but heard nothing in reply.
He began thinking of another tack. There wasn’t much time left, with the turn ending soon. He had his guesses about the quakken, but information was better than intuition. He wanted answers, from the only unit on board who knew. He just didn’t know much about interrogation.
But then the Anchorman warlord spoke up again. “Who says we tame them, Seaworld? Who says?”
Forecastle cocked an eyebrow. “I found the porthole in the hold, prisoner. There’s no point in being coy about it; I saw the beast.”
“You saw the beast, did ye?” said the prisoner. “And what level was it? Was it an enemy unit a’ t’all?”
Forecastle took in a sudden breath through his nose.
“No. It wasn’t,” he said, wincing. He hadn’t even bothered to size it up as an opponent, or he’d have known: that quakken out there was still feral. “Then why is it leaving the ship alone?”
At that moment, the ship’s bell rang out, in three groups of three clangs.
So soon... Seaworld’s turn had reached its end. The Anchorbar fleet would soon be sailing in. Inside the cell, that white, perfect smile beamed out of the darkness at him.
“It won’t any more, Seaworld.”
There was a thump from belowdecks.
Turn upon tedious turn at sea had left Forecastle’s thinking scattered like sunlight on the water. As the days rolled on, he’d felt his brain going soft from disuse, and felt himself powerless to stop it.
So what was it about a battle that gathered up all the light in his mind and made it a beam weapon, focused straight, narrow and hot?
There were choices, certainly. He could dash topside, to command this ship the way Admiral Chequer would have, go stand on the quarterdeck where a captain should be. Or he could run to the hold and try to strike at the quakken the moment it breached the inner hull. Maybe with the double eagle’s luck, he could crit the monster enough times to croak it.
But in the clarity of the moment, these didn’t even seem like sensible options to him.
Instead, he leaped down the companionway steps, and ran for the furnace.
With ferals, the general rule was: if it is bigger than you, it will hunt you. If not, it won’t willingly engage. So why wasn’t the quakken attacking? Or more precisely, why did it wait until the end of Seaworld’s turn to attack the ship? Was there some level of tameness between “tame” and “feral?”
Thinking back, there was only one time in his life when Forecastle had seen a heavy feral unit with a tactical advantage decline to attack.
That unit had been receiving buckets of fish, delivered by the crew of a warship.
“Gangway!” he ordered, clambering up the steps and into the sunshine.
He wasn’t the only one shouting. Every few seconds, the planks below his boots would thud or shudder with the slam of the quakken’s beak below. Crewmen were scrambling through the ship in all directions, but to what possible purpose, he didn’t know.
A three-deck climb with a basket in the crook of each elbow was a clumsy maneuver, leading Forecastle to drop a number of loaves and fishes along the way. But he had enough left over to start flinging fistfuls of fresh food overboard as soon as he reached the main deck’s starboard rail. Loaf, fish, loaf, fish, over the gunwales and into the sea below.
The bread floated on the water, but most of the fish did not. A shriek came down from the mizzen topsail yard. The double eagle, sounding almost offended, took to the air and dove into the water to retrieve the fish.
“No, you dumb... Get out of there!” he ordered. “It’s not for you!”
A few seconds later, the eagle came up to the surface. One of its heads was holding the biggest of the fishes he’d thrown overboard. The other glared at him, and snapped up a small floater from the water near it. Then it spread its enormous wings and rose skyward.
Forecastle resumed hurling food. “Come up,” he muttered through his teeth. “Come up!”
Some of the crew stood by and stared at him. He glanced over at one bewildered sailor, and it suddenly struck him how potentially stupid it was to be betting his life and all of theirs on this gambit. He could clearly imagine himself standing before the Titans and explaining why, as his second ship of the day sank below the waves, he’d stood there flinging fish. “What else was there to do?” he’d have to tell Them, lamely. “I made my best guess.”
“Bring up all the food you can,” he ordered the crewman. “Hurry. Get some help with it.”
Forecastle threw the last loaf over the side, watched it plop into the water, and listened. Plenty of sailors were still shouting, but he wasn’t sure the ship was still under attack. The buffeting of the hull from underwater was not as jarring from up here. He could sense that Double Eagle had been damaged, but it didn’t seem to be getting worse. He dared to hope that the monster had at least paused in its fury.
He picked up the fish basket, and dumped the last few of them overboard. The double eagle squawked at him sternly as it circled overhead. It had eaten the small fish and was tearing up the bigger one as it flew along erratically.
Forecastle leaned on the railing, looking and listening for any sign of the yellow beast. Instead, he heard the tocsin of the ship’s bell, in quick double-rings: enemy sighted.
“Northeast, ahoy!” cried the lookout.
The captain followed the directive and peered toward the horizon. The view from the main deck wasn’t as good as from the command deck, but it didn’t have to be. At least a dozen white sails accented with burgundy banners formed a battle line across the edge of the hex.
He leaned back over the rail again and looked at the loaves of bread bobbing in the sea. Were those bubbles in the green sea, or...
He turned around to see Carrack standing there, his face swollen and bruised from the beating Forecastle had given him. He glanced around the deck. Collier was at the helm, Dromond on the command deck, looking anxious.
“Oh, you’re speaking to me now?” asked Forecastle. He’d been so furious with this man half an hour before. Now that it didn’t seem to matter whether the crew listened to him or not, here he was.
“Aye, sir. Apologies, Cap’n. What are your orders?”
Forecastle glanced to the northeast. The wall of ships seemed a little taller. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “So I have no orders. When they get close enough, shoot at them, I guess.”
He turned his back to the helmsman, and looked down into the green water. The soggy bread loaves bobbed there, useless and sad. Wasted in the sea, as was he.
“Um. Maneuvers or something, Captain?” said Carrack behind him.
“No,” said Forecastle. “Leave me alone. I’m fishing.”
In his head, this plan had seemed so obvious. The quakken would eat the food, and then defend the frigate the way it had against Unsinkable II. But the quakken wasn’t coming up. And anyway, what good would it do to have one ship and one monster against a fleet, if all the Anchormen ships had quakkens of their own?
Forecastle leaned on the rail, feeling spent. He was all out of ideas, out of move, and out of time. Let the quakken sink them, then. Or the Anchorbar fleet. Let it end. He certainly was not bound for the City of Heroes, but “back in the box” sounded quite wonderful to him at this moment.
Gradually, the sailors’ shouts trailed off and the deck mostly fell silent, leaving only the creaking of the ship’s timbers. Only then was he certain that the quakken had stopped hitting the hull.
...That, and because he could see it moving in the water.
He stood up straight and gripped the rail. A yellow cloud in the green sea, nearly half the size of the ship, flashed out of Double Eagle’s shadow and turned sharply. Then it turned twice again, away from the ship, and back toward her. A few shouts and curses came from the rigging above. Forecastle could only stare in silence.
The cloud became brighter. Just before it broke the water’s surface, he saw the streak of orange, and then the great beak was grabbing the loaves from the surface of the sea with a violent head-bobbing motion.
From the rigging, he heard calls that he knew were preparations to fire the beams. “Hold fire!” he ordered, to no-one in particular.
The quakken gathered up all the floating loaves, then rose out of the water and towered over the deck. Its bulbous head tilted back, and it unleashed a rasping roar unlike anything Forecastle had ever heard.
“More bread...” he said, his voice breaking a bit. “Get more bread!”
The quakken took around seventy loaves to become friendly, or attached, or whatever it was that bound it to this ship. Forecastle threw them to it at first, as hard as he could, as it swam and thrashed around violently. The waves it made rolled over the rails, and the frigate rocked in its wake.
But the beast quickly grew more docile, and began to show an interest in him. It settled into a patient, bobbing squat on the water’s surface. The sailors brought him baskets of bread, and kept their distance from the starboard rail.
“Fishing...” Carrack muttered.
The last few loaves the quakken took, it picked daintily from his hands as he leaned over the side. It could just as easily have plucked Forecastle himself up and swallowed him whole. But it wanted bread. He offered it fish and dried meat. Only the loaves met its approval.
As they began to run low on bread, he worried about having enough to satisfy it. But it reached the apparent limit of its appetite while a few bits of bread remained in the baskets. It rasped out another terrible cry, and dove below the boat again.
He hadn’t tamed it. He couldn’t see its stats. But it liked him, just as the eagle had. He had confidence that it wouldn’t hurt the ship now, as long as he was on board.
Which was all well and good, but the Anchorbar navy was certainly about to.
They were closing fast, and each ship had its own friendly quakken. In fact, he could spot them now. Like the wake snakes, they were much easier to see near another vessel than your own. Perhaps that was why they’d held their ambush in a storm hex.
He counted thirteen ships in a line, and each had a yellow cloud swimming beneath it. Thirteen ships and thirteen quakkens.
Also thirteen non-seafarers, to whom those quakkens were uniquely loyal. Why’n’cha croak me, Seaworld?
“I have an order, Carrack,” the Captain told his helmsman.
“Evade. Buy us as much time as you can,” he said, looking the man in his swollen eyes. “I’m done fishing now. Time to hunt.”
He cupped his hand to his mouth and called to the sky. “Eaaagullll!”