Duke Forecastle, Part 5
A day at sea, a night at sea.
A day and a night, and a day and a night and another day and another night. Day, night, day, night...
Between the sun and the stars, between the grog in the daytime and the wine at Admiral Chequer‘s table every evening, Duke Forecastle forgot to worry about where this voyage might be heading. He forgot to even think about it.
“The enemy” became an abstraction. Although he did lead his stabbers up from the hold and put them through some basic boarding drills each afternoon, the thought of actual combat on the deck of the Unsinkable II (or aboard some smaller enemy vessel) was almost unimaginable. On land, he had fought some skirmishes and small battles, and slain more than his share of ferals around the city that bore his name. At sea?
He couldn‘t properly prepare his mind for it. At sea there was only this sameness, this flatness. What tactics were there? You‘d be fighting over sixty paces of wood planking in the vast blue water. Yes, there were a few nuances about ropes and grapples and gangplanks and how to position the vessels, but mostly a boarding action meant mobbing the enemy in close ranks and hoping to put a sword through them before they did it to you.
Each day, he ate fish and hardtack, and almost nothing new ever happened. Abaft of the ship, there always sailed two more of Her Majesty‘s vessels, following faithfully but never pulling close enough to hail for conversation. Sometimes they sailed through a stormy hex, which would make him briefly nauseous. And the ship had fired her beam weapons twice thus far, easily croaking a grooveshark and a wake snake. Forecastle had been below decks for both encounters, and missed them.
They piqued his interest, though.
“There‘s a disturbing little book in my wardroom,” he said to Cat Harping on the morning of the second attack.
When the alarm bell had rung, he‘d rushed topside with his sword in hand. But the wake snake had already been dispatched, so he took up a seat behind the Admiral and the navigator.
“Hashtag‘s Guide to Water-Capables, have you read it?”
Forecastle had grown accustomed to spending many of his daylight hours on the quarterdeck. Admiral Chequer often spent the entire day up here, staring intently at the horizon and saying nothing. He wouldn‘t allow himself to be engaged in conversation, but he never seemed to mind if Forecastle sat there on the rail behind him, in the shade of the sails, talking to his navigator.
Or trying to. Cat Harping wasn‘t much for conversation, either. Not that she was cold, or mean-spirited, but she was a tough clamshell to pry open. She liked some of Forecastle‘s jokes, though, especially cracks about the Admiralty, whenever he dared to make one.
Right now he was being perfectly serious, but she snorted anyway.
“Memorized it, f‘course,” she said derisively. “Could‘ve written it myself. It didn‘t need all that flowery Signamancy language. Just points and specials and how to croak the scurvy things.”
“Well...that‘s what I mean,” said the Duke, “the book made out wake snakes to be pretty dangerous. But I take it we managed the attack with, uh, minimal defensive action.”
“What, one little snake against a ship-o‘-the-line? You didn‘t read that book at all,” she scoffed.
“Yes I did,” said Forecastle, maybe a little too defensively. “It said a wake snake was a danger to any kind of ship.”
Wake snakes had a chance to bite through any hull, the book said. They‘d take a man right out through the hole as a meal, and leave the ship to flounder or sink. He couldn‘t forget reading that. The book‘s “flowery language” about encounters with ferals had a potent effect on his imagination.
“Yes, any lone ship, you dumb lubber,” she said with a snaggle-toothed grin. “They‘re hard to see in your own wake, but they‘re read‘ly spotted swimmin‘ behind another ship. The Penman signaled us we had a serpent back there, so we turned to starboard and shot the beast. No difficult thing.”
She put her hands on her wide hips and made a sad little face of mock concern. “Aw, mudfoot. Has that book been keepin‘ you up nights?”
For the first few nights, of course, Hashtag‘s Guide had done exactly that. Lately, it only gave him the occasional bolt-upright nightmare, as he dreamed the gory details of a yoctopus or a harryhausen surfacing, reaching over the gunwales, and dragging this ship down to the briny depths…
He stared over the Admiral‘s shoulder, into the distance. “Well. I mean, shouldn‘t it? It‘s all accurate, isn‘t it?”
“Oh, rightly,” nodded Cat. “But not ev‘ry beastie in the book ought to worry ya, you know. This is a capital ship. She ain‘t got naught to fear from most ferals.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Aye. F‘rinstance, there‘s no kind of shark that can harm us. Not groovesharks, tomato sharks, card sharks…they‘ll get you if you debark at sea, but we‘re safe enough aboard. Likewise for globsters, gamboes, sea saws, montauks...can‘t hurt the ship or crew none.”
Forecastle mentally paged through the book. The beasts Cat had named were mostly the smaller ones, except for card sharks. It was good to know that the Unsinkable II‘s hull was too tough for a sea saw to cut through, at least. But there were other creatures that had tricks to target the crew, like the wake snakes did.
“Seabiscuits?” he asked. He‘d fought some airbiscuits once in the field, which were flying discus shapes with a round set of teeth in the middle. They liked to take a unit‘s head off and fly away with it. Seabiscuits were similar, and could launch out of the water at the deck crew. They usually attacked in stacks.
Cat bit her lip and looked distant for a moment. “Aye, they can get you. Or aquabats. I don‘t much like the flyers.” She gestured at the dozen or so sailors on the main deck, and then to the eight or ten up in the rigging and the crow‘s nest. “But look at the crew, Warlord. You‘ve got lots of units right beside you to fight ‘em off, plus good sound leadership bonuses.” She indicated Chequer, who was standing there with his back to them, as stock still and disengaged as ever. “I‘ve seen ‘em attack; it ain‘t pretty. But I‘ve yet to see anyone get croaked that way.”
“Huh,” he said. He was glad to know that. Cat would know; she had logged many hundredturns on the open ocean. “So which ones should we worry about?”
“Nunnem,” grinned the navigator, as she shook her head. “Why worry? I mean the few that‘s big enough to fear‘ll prob‘ly do us in if we run afoul of ‘em. So there‘s no sense in discussing that.”
“Yes, but which ones? I notice you didn‘t mention sea dwagons,” he pressed, “or gorgoes, or quakkens...”
Cat‘s face lost its humor. “We‘d have it tougher against the big ones, for certain. Sea dwagons we can fight, yoctopuses…maybe quakkens, too; I‘ve never seen one. But there‘s whole cities can‘t defend against a gorgo or a harryhausen, y‘know. We‘d just have to hope we could run.”
Forecastle nodded, thinking about the crude illustrations of clawed and jawed and tentacled monsters in the pages of Hashtag‘s, tearing ships in half or holing them from below, or capsizing them by tugging on the mainmast.
“That sort of talk won‘t do,” said Admiral Chequer.
Forecastle looked up in surprise.
Cat stepped forward and came to attention immediately. “Beggin‘ the Admiral‘s pardon,” she said, her tone tight with military respect. “I‘m sure we‘ll fight whatever comes our way, and beat it, too, sir!”
Forecastle slid down off the railing and stood up. Chequer pivoted around, keeping his hands behind his back. He glared at his navigator.
“Not at all what I meant, Ensign Harping. I mean that it‘s bad luck to speak of such things when we‘re underway. You ought to know better than to speculate upon what perils we may encounter. That is tantamount to inviting them.”
“Aye, sir! Sorry, sir!” said Cat, her chin raised high.
Chequer shot each of them a brief, disdainful glance, then turned around to his customary stance.
Forecastle hadn‘t known about this particular superstition, but he had now been around enough seafarers to understand that they shared elaborate beliefs about Signs, Luck, and Fate. They placed coins between the planks by their bunks. They hid their shoes. They didn‘t allow anyone to whistle. The ones who spent their time below decks playing cards and dice were especially vulnerable to it.
He would have left the quarterdeck then, but he felt guilty for drawing Cat Harping into a discussion that earned her the Admiral‘s rebuke. When she had wanted to drop the subject, he‘d pressed. Maybe he should have known the subject was off limits.
So he stayed, and sat there with her as the mighty flagship cut across the waves. He watched her note the current soundings and wind readings in her little book as they passed from hex to hex. And he thought about the customs of seafarers.
The fact that even an Admiral held to shipboard superstitions struck him as bizarre. In fact, Chequer seemed more serious about them than his junior officer. Forecastle didn‘t claim to know how the world really worked, but he really doubted the Titans had given Men the power to cause themselves good or ill fortune by means of little rituals and habits of speech.
But the fact was, his units and his fellow officers alike believed these things. He‘d have to learn what they were to avoid upsetting anyone any further.
Cat called for no course changes as they sailed, and no more discussion passed among the three of them. The sound of wind and waves and the rocking of the ship almost lulled him to sleep a few times.
Then a shout of, “Ahoy! Astern!” and the frantic clanging of the ship‘s bell snapped him out of his reverie. He jumped to his feet.
“Hard a-starboard!” commanded Chequer.
From one deck below, Ensign Collier at the whipstaff repeated the Admiral‘s order. The ship began lurching to the right, her timbers groaning. From overhead, sailors shouted to one another and pulled hard at their lines.
While Forecastle was staring up into the rigging, Chequer rushed past him and leaned on the rail at the stern of the ship, staring fixedly out to sea. The Duke turned to look.
A flash of bluish white came from the direction of the Admiral‘s gaze. It took a moment for Forecastle to understand that the Penman had just fired her port beams in a full array.
Several seconds later, when the sound of those weapons boomed over them, he understood what she was fighting. Coiled once around the corvette‘s waist was an aquamarine and silver ribbon.
A sea dwagon was chomping at her yards, and she was already listing at twenty degrees.