Duke Forecastle - Part 16
There had been a moment—a very dangerous one, Forecastle now realized—just after he’d given the order to flee the hex. For twenty or thirty seconds, Collier, Carrack and Dromond had stood there in the rain and looked at one another, instead of responding to their Captain’s order.
At the time, Forecastle had almost failed to notice. After commanding them to “square the yards and run with the wind” (a term he was proud to have remembered correctly), he’d scampered up the steps to the Eagle’s poop deck, to take sight of the approaching Anchorbar line.
It was only when he turned around and still saw the men standing there in silence that he sensed something was wrong. But then they immediately broke apart, and began to go about their duties.
At the time, he’d assumed they were sorting out their new stations, dividing their responsibilities as the only officers remaining in the crew. But since then, they’d also refused to speak a word to him. They would follow his orders, but would not acknowledge with so much as an “aye.” Nor would they answer his direct questions. Or meet his gaze.
Most likely, Cat told him, they’d been deciding whether or not to follow his retreat order at all.
“Royal Navy’s never...had a mutiny, Cap’n,” she wheezed huskily. “I’d say they...decided that was a worse dishonor than runnin’ away.” She coughed, but only weakly.
He had carried her here to the Captain’s stateroom himself, while she was still unconscious. As far as he was concerned, these were her quarters. Putting her in command of this ship had been his intention. He wished he had the power to do it even now, even as she lay incapacitated in a bunk.
Forecastle took another bite of fresh bread, a long-lost and much-missed luxury from his days on land. They’d found shelves full of the stuff around the two big furnaces at either end of the frigate, and sacks of wheat and millet flour and casks of dry yeast in the stores. This was how Anchormen ate at sea, apparently. They didn’t fear fire aboard their ships the way Seaworld did.
“We had no choice,” he said, gnawing at the heel of the loaf. He’d brought the bread down here for Cat, but she was too weak to try more than a few bites. She’d insisted he have some, though, and it was too good to refuse. As a probable last meal, it would do. “Did they want to stay there and croak?”
Cat’s eyes were shut. Her head lay on a pillow of burgundy corduroy. “Stay and croak, or dishonor the Navy, run away, then croak. That’s a choice. Don’t think they...liked yours, Cap’n.”
He sighed. “Yes. Well. I don’t really like the Navy’s choices, either. This battle didn’t have to be lost, Cat. What was Chequer thinking, fighting them in a storm?”
She kept her eyes closed, breathing slowly but with a deep rasp, and said nothing.
“Fighting them the exact same way we’ve lost to them twice before? Why didn’t he pull the whole fleet back?” railed Forecastle. “Why didn’t we have more scouting? Why didn’t we keep a reserve? We lost thousands of sailors again today, and learned nothing! We don’t even know how they did what they do, how they sank us!”
She turned her head and managed to open one eye. “Believe I do, Cap’n.”
“Carrack!” shouted Forecastle into the man’s ear. “Answer me! Where was the captain croaked!”
Carrack stood at the command post and looked out over the length of the deck, his hands clasped behind his back. He held his chin high. His lips were pressed tightly together.
Forecastle glanced in the direction of the main deck, then up into the sails. The sailors on deck and in the rigging were all either looking at him, or making a point to look away. Nobody was doing anything. They were sitting or standing around, waiting for Anchorbar’s turn to begin, waiting to be set upon, swarmed, and sent to the bottom. Not one of them held the slightest regard for their nominal captain—the coward—or for anything he might want at this point.
Something in him snapped. Forecastle cocked back his arm, and punched the helmsman squarely between his ear and eye.
Carrack was knocked off the command post and fell to the deck. The Captain immediately jumped on his chest and began raining blows to his face and head. “Answer me!” he ordered with each punch. “Answer me! Answer! Answer! Disband you! Answer!”
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know, Captain!” bellowed Forecastle, adding one last knuckle strike, more from momentum than anything else. “Who does? Who did it!”
Carrack covered his bruised and cut face with his arm, and shook his head. Forecastle got to his feet.
“Who slew the captain of this ship?” he shouted to the rigging. “What unit, and where!”
Few, if any, of the Double Eagle’s crew looked away from him now, but still nobody said a word. The ship’s pennants and sails rustled in the breeze.
“Answer!!” He bellowed skyward, intending it as a general order to all crew.
From high atop the mainmast, the double eagle cried out, as if trying to comply. Maybe it even knew. But if birds had a language, Forecastle didn’t speak it.
The squawk broke the crew out of their silence, however, unfreezing their collective gaze. Perhaps it reminded them that he still controlled the dread beast. Some of the sailors began to talk to one another, or shout. A few pointed, but in conflicting directions.
“I don’t know who, Cap’n,” said a deep voice below him. “I know where, though!” He stepped to the rail, looking down on the main deck. Gummel, one of the pooners who’d been with him during his clumsy attack on the sea dwagon, was looking up.
“Were you there?” asked Forecastle.
The man nodded. “Aye, sir!”
Cat Harping had seen two things, when she was five fathoms below, and drowning.
“Something tore us up from underneath,” she told him, “and I saw it. It was an Anchorbar heavy unit. I...don’t know what kind. It stove in the hull in at least two places. I got trapped in the hold with a dozen good seafarers and we all saw it. Doubt anyone I was with got out to verify, though. Someone even took a stab at it. It swam off while the water rushed in.”
Anchorbar had submarine heavy units. It was no wonder they were so willing to fight a larger fleet. Half their force could be below the waves. “Can you describe it?” he asked.
She didn’t say anything.
“Yellow,” she said. “or maybe white. It was dark, Cap’n. It...had a flat ram or the like on its head, that it was using to break into the hull.”
“Titans...” He took in a slow breath through his nose, and let it out. “You said you’d memorized Hashtag’s Guide, Cat. I think you know what that was.”
She closed her eyes and said nothing, but swallowed and nodded.
“Did you see anything else?”
“A light, sir,” she said, opening her eyes again. “Port side, amidships, maybe second deck. I was blacked out when the eagle pulled me free, but when we moved past the frigate, I came to and saw it, plain as day. There was...a face, looking out. Then I was out again.”
“I didn’t croak him myself,” said Gummel, “but I was ready to. Stabbers took the lead. I had my poon if they fell. They didn’t, though. They ran him through good, Cap’n.”
The storage hold where Gummel took him looked like every other cargo compartment he’d ever seen. But it was in fact port side, amidships. Brass-bound trunks, sacks of dry goods, spare rope and sailcloth were piled neatly or lashed in place. It smelled mainly of tar and hemp rope.
Forecastle hung the lantern on a peg above the hatchway, and looked around.
“That’s the inner hull?” he asked Gummel, pointing to the opposite wall.
“What’s the canvas?” he asked, stepping between piles of burlap sacks. His own shadow was blocking his view, but there was a sheet of sail canvas pinned up over the wall. And unlike any of the other walls, no stores were piled up against it.
Forecastle tugged at the sheet and pulled it back.
The wall behind it was not bare hardwood, but instead consisted of a panel of coal-black steel, bolted securely to the inner hull. Set within the metal of the plate was a disk about as wide as a man’s face, with a bar inset. He touched it. The steel was surprisingly cold.
“This is a porthole. Isn’t it?” he asked Gummel.
“In the hold, sir? Can’t see the use of it,” said the pooner dubiously. “Maybe it’s a pump drain or something.”
“You’re a seafarer and you don’t know?” Forecastle gripped the bar in the center of it and tugged. It did not come loose.
“Or it could be to scuttle?” said Gummel hurriedly. “Maybe you shouldn’t tug on it, sir. No, sir. I don’t know what it’s for. We haven’t got one on...we didn’t have one on Unsinkable II, sir.”
Forecastle shook his head. “I think it’s a porthole,” he said. “So how do you—” Twisting the handle widdershins, the disc began to turn. He continued turning it, as it gradually unscrewed and emerged from its socket.
When the hatch cover came off in his hand, his arm dropped to his side with the weight of it.
He found himself looking at a color that he hadn’t seen since he’d been keelhauled: bluegreen sunlight, through many fathoms of water. The hatch opening was a tube of the same black steel, extending through the inner and outer hull, and filled with solid glass.
“Porthole,” he said, feigning confidence. In truth, he had half expected the sea to come blasting in. But the mercy in being wrong there would’ve been that there’d be no time for mortal embarrassment about it.
“Aye, sir,” breathed Gummel, looking over his shoulder.
Forecastle pressed his nose and forehead against the cold glass. He could see little bubbles in the glass, and a few bigger ones in the water beyond, but nothing else. He could not judge the distance, as the view dimmed to murk, but it seemed that you could easily have seen most of Unsinkable II’s hull from here.
“I’d bet there’s another one of these on the starboard side,” he said.
He watched for a while, thinking of the enemy captain, his counterpart, directing the beast from below the waterline. The real battle had been down here all along. They’d each conquered the other’s ship, like two duelists simultaneously stabbing each other, instead of parrying. Forecastle had won his battle above, but the enemy had also won it, fighting from beneath.
That captain must have watched until he was certain that the great flagship was doomed. Then he had dutifully replaced the hatch cover and the canvas, taken up his sword, and fought to the bitter end.
And shortly after that, when faced with a similar doom, Captain Forecastle had fled.
He straightened and turned around, looking the big harpooner in the eye. “The crew thinks I failed my Duty,” he said plainly. “But I’m not a coward.”
Gummel said nothing, but his posture shifted toward the uncomfortable.
“You know that, right? You fought the sea dwagon with me.”
“Aye, sir,” said the harpooner.
“My Duty is to the mission,” said the Captain. “Do you think we could have fulfilled our mission if we’d stayed and fought?”
Gummel stayed silent for a long time, as Forecastle stared at him. The question might have seemed rhetorical, but right now all he wanted was a response from someone. Any kind of response would do. Now that he (and Cat) had discovered Anchorbar’s secret, he didn’t know what to do next. He had to talk it out. But nobody was talking to him. And whatever it was he decided to try next, he needed the crew on his side.
Eventually, Gummel cleared his throat. “I don’t know, Cap’n. I don’t rightly know what our mission is. Unless it’s just...fighting Anchorbar.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”
Gummel shook his head. “Why would I, sir?”
Forecastle knotted his brow. Was that the case? Did the ordinary sailors really not even know why they were at sea for all these turns?
“We were supposed to discover and report how Anchorbar was beating us at sea. We went out in force, to uncover their secret,” he said, “But we can’t afford to raise another fleet like this one. Like the one...the one we’ve just lost. Unless we know how to beat them, then Seaworld will go into decline. We’ll lose our colonies. We’ll eventually fall. To the Anchormen, or to someone closer.”
Gummel went white. The look of pure distress on his face gave Forecastle some immediate insight to why the mission was known only to the officers.
“But I think I understand how they did it now,” said Forecastle. “If we still had the hat, we could send word to the Admiralty. And then we could all happily go to the Titans, knowing that the mission had succeeded, that we’d actually done our Duty. But until we can—”
Gummel still looked stricken with horror, but he was looking past Forecastle, to the porthole. He indicated it with his chin, and Forecastle turned around.
The view outside was no longer bluegreen, but yellow-green. Something very close to the ship was swimming alongside. Something with feathers. The ship’s bell began to ring, and the enormous form swam away.
Captain Forecastle pressed his face to the glass again. He could see it now, almost the entire body of the beast was within his view. It had the girth of a whale, and was shaped vaguely like a yellow dwagon, but it had no appendages. How it propelled itself through the water, he couldn’t have said. Its great beak was orange, its eyes a brilliant sapphire blue, but the rest of its body was a uniform bright yellow.
It was exactly as Hashtag’s had described a quakken.
“It’s not attacking,” was his first thought, and he said it out loud.
Then he turned back to Gummel. “I have to see the prisoner.”