Thursday, October 22, 2015

So Many Depressing Things I Can't Even Summarize Them (October 22, 2015)

I got out of the habit of posting these. Mea culpa. I am working on a story I've been serializing here and also obsessing over Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache novels. I probably won't be back to regular schedule until I finish Cricket Boy, and I don't know how much longer it will need. I've already overshot my original estimate by a lot.

Here are the backlog of great things I've read:

  • Banking. An exploration of how banksters managed to stay out of prison, also known as friends in high places [Atlantic]
  • Banking. From inside the banking crisis of 2008, it felt worse to the bankers involved but they've already discarded whatever little they might have learned [Guardian]
  • A hospital is considered revolutionary because it is trying to figure out what its costs really are [NYT]
  • A deep dive into Uber, Taxi 2.0 which some love and others love to hate [Fast Company]
  • Department of Rants. I do love a good rant. This one is about how a little money and a crazy idea created the war on terror that has lasted 14 years, so far [The Nation]
  • The documents and terrifying story behind an angry man, his bunker, and the race to save his 5-year-old hostage [WSJ]
  • Traveling has become so fee-ridden that travelers are now glad to pay for bundles; don't forget all of this used to be included in the ticket price, sigh [NYT]
  • A review of a new book on spymaster Allan Dulles, known as "the Shark," and a mentor to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld [Mother Jones]
  • Luxury shelters for wealthy end-of-the-worlders [VICE]
  • Some of the documents behind the drone/assassination program that the US has going [The Intercept]
  • More details on the 'secret' police interrogation center that Chicago police operated for thousands of 'visitors' [Guardian]
There's a lot more, but this post is quite long. Enjoy!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Thirteen: The Crowded Sea

Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.

XX

When Trew woke the next morning, he heard the desperate music of crickets. He’d forgotten to ‘feed’ them.

Trew remembered everything that Compass Mate had been so pleased to explain. With dread in his heart, Trew pulled on his uniform and approached the cage. He knelt down, unlatched the top of the cage, and stuck his hand inside.

That wasn’t too bad. He could handle the feeling of them climbing and exploring so long as he didn’t look at them.

If only this were the lone step to feeding them. Trew remembered what came next: making a Glow in red or orange or yellow. He was on War in his facet chain. Trew hadn’t tried to make a Glow with this facet, but he didn’t think it would be that hard. Red and War seemed friendly with each other.

Trew started the Glow. It felt sputtery and faint, but it came across as red.

The sound from the cage changed at that instant.

The crickets that weren’t already exploring Trew’s hand rushed for that Glow. They piled on top of the others, many crickets deep in a tight ball surrounding his hand. Then they began to eat. Some of those tiny teeth scraped at his skin. A thousand thousand tiny scratches…

He just managed to keep the Glow from collapsing. Trew found maintaining his silence among the hardest things he’d ever done.

It hurt, his hand hurt, his facet felt like it was being ripped away in tiny portions. His body and his mind sang out for relief.

He kept his hand inside and looked away, at the hull. He could feel a coppery taste in his mouth. He’d bitten his lip or something. He was bleeding.

Trew hadn’t thought he was particularly susceptible to pain. He was.

He didn’t know how he was going to manage this for an hour every day, splitting up the torture between the morning and the eve.

He felt every cricket try to burrow for the source of that Glow. Not a one tried to escape through the opening. What they wanted was already in the cage with them, centered around Trew’s hand.

The crickets intensified their climbing of each other. They all wanted to be in the center of that ball, as close as they could get to the Glow.

The weight pulled Trew’s hand deeper into the cage until his fingernails brushed against the lower bound. He didn’t feel wood. He felt metal, circles he couldn’t see in bronze and iron and a few in silver.

This was where he had hidden almost all of the coins from Father’s gift.

Trew would dread this twice daily task, but he needed these crickets as much as they needed his Glow. Compass Mate had ordered him to keep them alive, but he would carry out the order because they kept his tiny pelf safe.

Trew knew that his cabin had been entered. Someone had left a half-cask for him which was filled with a little more gawgrie every day. He was supposed to pour some into his water. He left it. Maybe he could barter it when he found he needed something.

It wasn’t just the cask, though. Trew thought his belongings had been searched. By whom he didn’t know. But no one had disturbed the crickets or the treasure they kept safe. That allowed Trew to smile a little. They didn’t just trouble Trew, they bothered everyone.

He wondered if some sneaking person had searched everything in this cabin, then stared at the box of crickets before shivering in revulsion. Red crickets…

For that security, Trew had to be willing to sacrifice something. Or endure something, like this pain.

After Trew thought he’d sacrificed enough of his facet, he ended the Glow and some crickets began to fall out of the tight ball they’d formed around his hand.

He didn’t yank his hand out as was his inclination. There was a secondary task he needed to complete, replacing what he’d kept in his oddments pocket.

Trew started hunting for a few of the wooden coins. He pushed the crickets around. He felt many of the metal coins and one that he thought was made of stone. He couldn’t find what he wanted. There were a lot of crickets in this cage. Pushing crickets out of the way was like trying to stack dry sand, the whole edifice crumbled with every new scoop.

He was getting a little frustrated before he began locating the wooden coins. He kept at it until he had five. He thought there could be a few more in the cage, but they could rest with their stone and metal friends.

He pulled his hand out and brushed off the crickets that still clung to him. He thought about his oddments pocket. He’d have circles and wood covered. Maybe he could beg some string off Arkwright again. But little bits of metal, small stones, the different shapes one should keep handy… Those were in short supply on a ship. He’d have to keep peering around. Or make friends with a Carpentry Mate or Hull Mate or whatever title the Commander had saddled that person with.

He snapped the cover back into place on the cage. The crickets seemed sated and fat, whether on his facet or his flesh he wasn’t sure. His hand had a nibbled look to it.

These little red monsters were doubly carnivorous, eating his body and strips of his mind.

He thought he could be late so he ran out of his cabin. Trew was coming to know the dark hallways of the Fortress. He didn’t get lost on his way to the ladder, which was a first. He climbed the stairs onto the main deck and saw rather solemn Oddfellows, a group of Mates and Men doing little to nothing.

Yes, they were near where the skiff was tied up.

They were, as a group, looking down at the skiff.

Trew felt a heaviness in his chest. He moved slowly over to the railing. He had an idea what this meant. That they weren’t ignoring the skiff today meant…something had happened.

Something final.

He tried to get a good view down to the skiff. He had to crouch before he saw that the ill man in the skiff no longer breathed at all. His illness had taken his life.

What he saw was horrible and just as he expected.

Then Trew looked at the Men and Mates. From this angle, Trew could see ashamed, downcast eyes. Trew knew the look: guilt. They could have done something, but had done nothing. Now they cared when none of them could do the slightest thing.

All of them shared in this death and realized it. The Commander might have given them orders not to help for fear of disease, but they all now felt something from their neglect.

Trew thought that a few of them prayed. Trew heard references to Sail, Anchor, and Storm. That was Sea Guard. He heard Spinner, Weaver, and Cutter again. He still didn’t know what that was. Trew thought he heard Bread, Wine, and Fish. Trew didn’t recognize those facets or how to use them.

Trew could add Sail, Anchor, and Storm to his loop. Those he understood and could come to make useful.

He wouldn’t though. Not yet.

He wouldn’t just say the words, either. He didn’t think the Men who prayed got much comfort from their prayers. Words spoken now were a poor replacement for deeds not carried through then. The guilt came because it wasn’t enough just to do the right things. These Men and Mates owned their omissions as well, the futures they could have, but hadn’t, created, because of orders or fear or whatever comforting lies they told themselves.

The Men and Mates found the lesson was hard to look at, especially when it resembled a diseased, dead body.

The Commander stomped through the gaggle and looked down when he paused at the railing. “Dead is dead. Cut ‘er loose, Ship’s Mate.”

As frigid as an icehouse, his words stopped everything on the main deck. He had ordered no help for the man they’d rescued. Now he’d ordered them to abandon the dead to the Purple Sea.

Trew said nothing, but his mind was roiled. He wondered if the Commander had said something similar when Black and Trew had taken their plunge into the Sea. ‘Leave ‘em. They’re dead.’

Trew found his fingernails, digging into his palms, were making an even bigger mess of his hand. What the crickets hadn’t damaged, he was. After all, he had been the one abandoned by this facet-damned creature yesterday.

The men at prayer stopped muttering. No one spoke. The Commander had gotten plenty of attention with his order, but it didn’t seem to be the kind he wanted.

“Mate?” the Commander asked, annoyed. “Now, if ye please.”

“Aye.” The Ship’s Mate came to the railing and pulled out a knife. Three slashes and he’d made quick work of the line. There was just a tiny noise as the cut section snapped away from the railing. The Fortress was moving forward. The skiff would fall back.

Trew closed his eyes a moment.

He had no prayer to offer, but he did have some brief memories of the dead man. He thought of the terror in his eyes last night as he faced up to an incomprehensible truth. Trew hoped he would never know when he would perish, especially not with enough warning to have it eat through his sanity.

Perish… That word.

Trew realized he did have a prayer to say for the dead man. “We perish, each alone,” he whispered, hating the sentiment.

They weren’t facets he was invoking, powers that he was attempting to develop or refine. These words were an uncomfortable truth, a hateful one.

Trew wondered if he could ever make those words untrue. Could he save people thought unsalvageable?

It was as good a desire as any.

Trew opened his eyes when he heard unhappy sounds from the Men. He looked at them. They were looking at the Sea. So Trew knelt down again and looked through the balusters.

The line tethering the skiff to the Fortress had fallen into the water and disappeared. That was as expected. Trew looked in the distance. The skiff should be a mile back or more.

The vessel wasn’t there. Trew looked closer to the Fortress. Odd, but the skiff was very close. It had fallen back only somewhat and it was keeping pace as the Fortress’s new shadow.

Trew saw Men crossing themselves. Some were back to their prayers. More than one said the word ‘cursed.’

“Back to yer stations. Put yer ogles on yer work,” the Commander said before he swayed away.

The Mates busted up the clump of Men, but they had less success with the gossip and the muttering about omens.

Mate got the Boys off to a quiet spot of the main deck. He wanted to continue their lesson on Glows.

It didn’t go well. Trew’s was sputtery again, worse than when he had a horde of crickets feasting on it. Black made nothing happen. Sprocket’s Glow seemed to pop.

“Yer ogles on yer work,” Compass Mate said. “This storymandering will rot out the ship.”

They were all frazzled. But timid Black was more so than Trew and Sprocket.

“What’s an omen?” Black asked.

That took some courage.

“Never heard the word?” Mate asked.

“No, Mate.”

Mate nodded. “Saylors see everything.” He looked at all three Boys. “Everything. They have such a small world to observe that they notice every change. A frayed line on a signal mast is bad. A fellow given to drink or idiocy is worse. A death on ship, or near ship, is worst of all. The string of problems in the last few days makes them unhappy.”

“What problems?” Black asked.

Had he not noticed?

“The engine working poorly. Yer dip in the Sea. A visit from the Kraken. Finding that skiff where it shouldn’t be and a man dying of something everyone fears.”

“Aye.”

Trew noted that Mate hadn’t exactly defined why the Men feared an omen. They feared that the chain of terrible occurrences would continue into the future.

Trew didn’t bother to fill in that detail. It would just trouble Black.

The lessons resumed, but poorly. Mate often looked to the water where the skiff was. He never stopped speaking about the signal mast or the signals the ship used or how facet was used to make the correct Glows. He just wasn’t focused on them.

He didn’t stop looking when he had Sprocket show off a green Glow that held well. Or when Black got his to work or when Trew finally got the sputter out of a blue Glow.

He was distracted, but he didn’t head off for his other duties or desires. He sat with them through dinner.

“Some of the last peas we’ve gotten from the True World. Enjoy it ‘cause it’ll be gone soon,” was his sole comment.

He continued lessons in the high heat of the afternoon as the Boys struggled to remain awake while digesting their portions of turnip cake and pease porridge.

Trew paid attention to the others on the deck, too. The quiet muttering grew through the afternoon. He heard the skiff renamed the Following Skiff, which wouldn’t knock down its reputation at all. There was always at least a few sets of eyes on it from somewhere on the main deck.

Mate found new topics and exercises for them well into dusk. He was waiting for starlight, he had said more than once.

Trew thought it more likely he wasn’t letting any of them out of his sight.

The day prior had scarred Mate more than it scarred Black and Trew. Trew doubted it was directly because of what had happened to Black and Trew and more likely from some threat whispered by the Commander. That facet-damned creature was hobbled but still terrifying.

Then again, maybe Mate believed in omens, too.

Trew pondered that for some time as he tried to memorize the signals. They were starting with the common tongue before they tackled the High symbols.

“It’s scarce dark enough, but let’s move. Ye’re shivering, I’d ken. Let’s get started on our night lesson.”

Trew was all for stretching his arms and legs.

His enthusiasm waned when he saw where Mate was taking them. The ship was small enough, but there was one place that was off limits to almost all. That’s where Mate directed them, to the Commander’s cabin. They were having a lesson in there?

Compass Mate steered them far away from the single door, which added to Trew’s confusion. Why come here at all if they weren’t going inside?

Mate put his hand on the wood that made up the exposed face of the Commander’s cabin. He pushed in some facet. A set of stairs grew out of the wall.

Trew grinned. He immediately thought of his favorite climbing tree in Gawgrie. If he could give it a set of winding stairs from the bottom all the way to the top…

How had Trew not noticed these stairs before, he wondered. Someone had to have used them prior to now.

Mate was slow to peel away the secrets, wasn’t he? Trew would find out, if he were patient.

“These are the steps to the helm deck.”

Mate pulled his hand away and the stairs disappeared back into the wall.

That was a lumping trick, one Trew wanted to learn.

“The helm is up there as is the compass. We’re fixed in a large, gentle loop this day and the next, until we work out all the kinks.”

That explained why he’d had more time for them.

“Ye may not come here without me. Ye will not spend time up here doing the problems I’ll set ye, either. The work ye’ll do sans compass, sans maps.”

This lecture sounded like one he’d either given before or received many times.

“How?” Sprocket asked.

“Facet. And brains. We’ll train you up in the one, but it’s your responsibility to provide the other.”

“Aye.”

Mate brought the stairs out again. He pulled his hand away, but the stairs remained. There had to be a series of tricks he wasn’t explaining.

Trew was the last one up the stairs. He was still marveling at that facet-work when he clapped eyes on the helm deck.

He was underwhelmed to say the least. There was a short railing, a helm, two copper-clad structures that Trew hoped were facet cannons, and four posts which supported a sun shade made of sayle. It wasn’t so useful in the twilight.

Trew had seen none of this from the deck, but he’d never gotten as distant as the bowsprit to look back. When one was farthest forward in a ship, one looked forward.

Mate said nothing further about signals. Up here, he was concerned with navigation. His lecture was rapid and fierce. Trew felt the details flying past him faster than he could accumulate them. He just knew he’d one day need to know how a compass worked when there was no true north to find in the Red World.

He didn’t understand what Mate said about the True World compass which spun in lazy circles as if baffled. He’d need to know all of his some day, but Trew felt like his brain was back in the deep red water of the Purple Sea, syrupy and panicked.

It got worse when Mate pointed at various things in the darkening sky, explained some of them, and began assigning slatework.

Math.

In all the books and flimsies that Trew had read, there was never any mention of math.

But Compass Mate — for as much as he resembled a bronze candlestick — was now talking with passion about stars, numbers, sextants, angles, and other things Trew had never heard of. Black didn’t seem nearly as baffled, but poor Sprocket looked as though his eyes were going to pop out of his head.

Trew was trying to work the third problem Mate had set but he couldn’t even see what he’d scratched onto his slate. He lit his hand in a yellow Glow. It was fully dark, but Mate was fixated on the red stars above.

Trew’s Glow opened his eyes.

“That’s it for tonight. Work that problem in the morning,” Mate said.

“Aye,” the Boys responded.

Trew shivered and yawned and moved through the dark halls underdeck. Without a word, they filtered into Black’s room.

The sparrows began to sing for him. “Shut up,” Black hissed.

He threw a tunic over their cage and that seemed to settle them down.

Trew sat on the cabin floor fairly close to that shirt. He noticed that the cloth was fine, finer than anything Trew owned. Trew didn’t know what that meant, but he found it interesting.

“Angles, who cares about angles?” Sprocket asked, taking the floor. The things he said, mostly mocking Mate, were quite funny. He was easy to be around when he was angry.

Black didn’t say anything, though he looked like he wanted to. He hadn’t struggled with the lectures Mate had given.

Trew had enjoyed learning a little about dead reckoning, but he was still thinking about that skiff trailing along behind.

“Superstitious lot,” Trew said.

All of them turned to look at the hull, roughly where they thought that Following Skiff would be.

“Aye,” Black said.

“I’ve never heard of a skiff following behind a bigger ship,” Sprocket said. “It should get some interest. It’s a great, lumping mystery.”

Trew nodded. It was.

“Omens, though, no, I doubt it,” Sprocket said.

“Do you?” Black asked.

“We’re not cursed. That skiff is,” Sprocket said.

But that skiff wasn’t so very far away.

The term mystery was just right. Everything about the ship now seemed dipped in mysteries, omens, and curses. And that was before one had to add in stars, math, and Glows.

“I want to know who let that broken hulk onto the ship,” Sprocket said.

“Who?” Trew asked.

“Chesty or whatever he’s really called.”

Black flushed at this topic.

Trew kept his tongue. He harbored no secret support for Chesty, but he’d made that clear before Black went asking him for advice. He wouldn’t come out and say that Black had been stupid. However…Black had been stupid.

Trew had been at least as stupid, he admitted to himself.

Their quiet awkwardness now proved that they both realized this, even if Sprocket did not.

“I’m never going to get what he was lecturing about tonight,” Trew said. “Angles, stars, and math.”

“Me, either. I’ll wind up dumber than Chesty…,” Sprocket said.

“I could help,” Black said, before he yawned. “I know this kind of math.”

“Would you?” Sprocket asked.

“Aye. But tomorrow night?”

“We’re all wrecked,” Sprocket said.

Trew thought that was a perfect term — and he still had to donate flesh and facet to a bunch of hungry crickets.

They agreed to meet the following night so that Black could help them with the mathematics. Trew vowed to himself that he would keep his eye on Black for everything else. Maybe exchange math lessons for Glow lessons.

Those damned crickets were going to make Trew a Glow master in no time.

Sprocket seemed to have made a similar decision to help Black.

Trew returned to his cabin and fed his crickets again. After, Trew tried to sleep, but the pain in his hand kept him awake for a time. The crickets were absolutely silent when Trew finally closed his eyes and fell asleep.

He dreamed this night of sinking in red water and of tentacles not coming for him.




When Trew came on deck the next morning, what he saw made him forget that he was tired and that his hand felt like it had been chewed by very tiny teeth. Trew saw the Men clumped together again. What was the skiff doing now?

Trew didn’t think he would like the answer. Chesty seemed to be the leader of this crush of people. If his fingers were in it, Trew didn’t want a taste.

Still, he observed. All these Men were staring over the railing. It was definitely something of the Sea or something riding on it.

Trew closed with the group but stayed a little apart. He crouched and managed to look out to the Purple Sea. He still couldn’t see what the Men saw. He could see the skiff in the near distance, but that wasn’t what they were looking at.

What was Chesty doing?

Trew had decided that Chesty had previously been named Trouble and been banished to the sea. It could be true. The Able seemed to find a new varietal of trouble every day to practice.

Today’s involved the Sea. Trew stared down again. He finally caught a glimmer of Glow from under the Sea. The glimmer looked like a fish. No, the glimmer looked like several fish racing around in the Sea.

Trew couldn’t take his eyes away.

That water was poison, as Trew well knew, so where had the fish come from?

Something happened in the water. The glimmers changed somehow. The Men also watching all this roared with cheer or anger, as the mood struck them.

Trew glanced up to the Men on deck. He saw a few of them exchanging coins, then Chesty produced three more fish from a canvas sack.

He rubbed a bit of the salt off them. It looked like he had raided the galley for its store of salt-packed fish. He handed one fish to each of three Men. All of the Men’s hands Glowed a little before they dropped the fish over the side.

Why would they waste food like that…

Trew was confused. He’d seen fish moving under the Sea, a place where fish couldn’t survive. He felt slow when he finally understood that the Men were animating the salted fish.

Trew crouched again and craned his head over the side. He wasn’t wrong. Those dead lakefish were now swimming — swimming! — in the Purple Sea. Not only swimming, but fighting with each other. That was why the Men were so interested.

They weren’t chattering without purpose. They were discussing sums of money and the names of the three Men who’d been handed the salted fish.

They were sporting.

They were using facet to reanimate dead fish.

Trew found all his earlier curiosity turned to bile. This confirmed every terrible thing he’d ever thought of Chesty, the bellwether of this mob.

Strong hands plucked Trew away from the railing before he got stepped on.

“That’s enough of that,” Compass Mate said. “Do it again and the Galley Mate will have his hide scratched raw at the Commander’s order, I’ve no doubt.”

Chesty made to protest before he shook his head.

“Return what ye borrowed so that some of us don’t go hungry at noon.”

The Men didn’t protest, but they also didn’t return to their duty stations with any particular speed.

Trew thought that Compass Mate had earned himself some enemies just then. He’d known and done it still.

“Ye enjoy that?” Mate growled at Trew.

“No, not once I knew what they were doing.”

Mate softened a little. “Good. Now ye know what a bored Man might just do. Those fish were for our dinner today, not for someone’s jest.”

“Aye, Mate.”

“I’ll be back in three minutes. I need a word with Ship’s Mate.”

When Black and Sprocket straggled onto the main deck, Trew relayed what he’d seen.

Neither looked disgusted, rather more unhappy that they’d missed it.

Trew said nothing about his disgust with Chesty, the Men, and now Sprocket and Black. Trew needed friends on this Ship, even if they weren’t all that he hoped.

The only one who came out of the episode well, to Trew’s mind, was Compass Mate.

Ship’s Mate was on deck before Compass Mate returned. “A bunch of omen-foolishness. A bunch of pranking. I’ve use for idle hands, Men. It’s rope drill ‘til dinner.”

The Men who knew what this rope drill was seemed unhappy. The others were soon clued in.

There were unfriendly looks for Ship’s Mate.

He took this in. “I’ll decide what else we need to see in the afternoon. Maybe climbing drills up the signal mast. Maybe scrubbing down all the decks…”

Ship’s Mate waved his hand at the Boys. They were exempt.

Ship’s Mate set to work with the Men.

The Boys thought they had gotten the better end of the deal until Compass Mate carried up his own torture. The slates were back and so were the math problems.

As Trew set to work, he caught pieces of the rope drill. There were fifteen Men on the main deck, each set to work one of three ropes. According to the explanation given by Ship’s Mate, they had to attune their facet to each other and unravel the rope.

Arkwright had been doing something like this the day Black and Trew fell into the Purple Sea.

It didn’t sound easy now that Trew heard this explanation. It required little in the way of muscle, but any new facet-work was guaranteed to be tricky.

Trew wondered what utility this attunement would have for the ship. The officers of Sea Guard didn’t seem like they enjoyed wasting time.

Trew didn’t ask. He settled in and worked his problem. He tried one way. No, wrong. He tried a different way.

“Cosine,” Black whispered.

“Thank you,” Trew said.

That…worked.

He didn’t think he would ever understand how to grasp the computations demanded of him. Black seemed to have little trouble.

Mate praised Black and launched into a new explanation for Sprocket and Trew that made even less sense than the earlier ones.

After he baffled two of them, Mate set them a new problem and Trew had no idea of where to begin. It was much harder.

Sprocket gave up and startled doodling.

Black shifted his position so that he was closer to Trew.

He went slower through his slate-work.

Trew watched him make large numbers on his slate.

Black wanted Trew to see them and follow along.

Trew copied what he saw, then set to decyphering it. The Men of a Lighthouse couldn’t confuse a meaningful message any better… Hold on.

The mishmash began to look like something.

Black looked over and Trew nodded.

When Black returned to his work, his numbers were far smaller. He was working the problem for himself, not for Trew’s benefit now.

Trew knew how to get started.

“Better,” Mate said, looking at Trew’s slate.

Sprocket almost growled. He started drawing an ogre on his slate. Trew assumed it was portraiture of their instructor.

Trew concentrated and got fairly far along in the involved computation before noise on the deck startled him into looking up.

One crew of men had started their rope on fire. Several of them raced for…something.

Two Mates — one of them that cruel-looking Galley Mate — dropped oddments over the side of the ship. Fountains of water lifted up in the air and extinguished the flames.

“See now,” Ship’s Mate crowed. “See that. That wasn’t anything near to atunement. If you ever want near a facet cannon, you have to unravel and re-ravel a rope as a team. Yer facet can’t set something delicate on fire. Ye’ve got to concentrate, bucks.”

The dispirited five went to clear the mess and fetch a new rope.

They paused and looked, as one, to what Trew hoped was the south-east. Otherwise he knew less about navigation today than he had yesterday.

Compass Mate turned to look.

Everyone did, like a ripple from one end of the ship to the next.

What was happening? The thought barely had time to make itself known before Trew felt it.

He felt wind, far stronger than anything he’d felt in Gawgrie. Trew stood. Sprocket stood. Trew helped Black to his feet.

The wind smelled of trees and leaves, maybe olive? Definitely not peach.

The Commander came on deck.

“Wind?” he asked no one. He fixed his eyes in the distance, perhaps looking for the Lighthouse he’d been ignoring.

“No one predicted a Rift. I might refuse to send signals to the Lighthouse, but I’m looking at their signals. They said nothing about a Rift. More the fools they are.”

He peered into the distance.

Trew swiveled to look in the same direction. He couldn’t see a Lighthouse.

The Commander turned away, glaring at everyone. “They’re on it. Late, of course. A damned ship has sailed through into Red World. Where was the warning? Why didn’t they have Fortress of the Sky in the air?”

Trew looked into the sky. He didn’t see one of the flying ships. Being on the Purple Sea was something, but flying above it would be far better. Not that he was uttering a word of that thought while on this ship.

“Damn. Damn.”

The Commander had realized something. It sounded like it portended poorly for all of them.

“This wasn’t predicted or scheduled by us but a ship knew it was opening…”

How, Trew wondered.

“The rumors are true. Those thieves, badgers, and skulks have really done it. They can open their own Rifts now.”

Trew felt the threat in those words. The pirates now had all the same tools as Sea Guard. All of them.

“Compass Mate, let’s have a new course,” the Commander demanded.

“Aye, Commander.”

“Let’s assume they’re using the wind for now. Twelve knots, I’d ken, not ten or fourteen. Let’s assume they’re closing with Last Sayle. Let’s get into their passage before they do.”

“Aye, Commander.”

Mate picked up a slate and began to work the problem. The Commander had just set a problem for Mate harder than anything Mate had set for them.

“Ah.” The Commander shook his head. “There’s the Lighthouse responding slower than the dead ring a bell. It’s the first bit of sense they’ve transmitted in a week, I’d wager.”

He laughed.

The Commander, wrapped in dirty sayle, laughed.

Trew doubted it would ever happen again so he committed the moment to memory.

“Aye, there’s one order I like. Course, I’ve already given it before they did. Slow, but not quite so foolish now, are they?”

“What was the order?” Sprocket asked himself, but not quietly enough.

The Commander speared the Boy with a glance.

“Ye’re curious. That’s not a bad thing. The Glow-boys on the Lighthouse say, ‘Investigate and report.’ Aye, with pleasure. Ship’s Mate, we can discontinue this rope drill for now.”

“Aye.”

“Later, we’ll give them the fifteen ways to polish the deck. Or the thirty-seven ways to work the signal mast. Whatever that fool book of Fitche’s said. For now, I want the main deck functional.”

In case of a battle. In case the cannons were needed.

“With me Boys,” Mate said. He took them up to the helm deck again. Trew was grateful for that as the view was better.

Then Mate squandered that gratitude when he set them back to their slates.

“If ye don’t figure this ‘un, next will be sewing drill. Forty new uniforms before you’re allowed your turnip cake and gruel.”

That focused their attention.

“No leaning on Sparrow Boy. Ye’ve a question, Cricket Boy, ye ask me.”

“Aye.”

“Good.”

Mate had his own slate out again. He checked it then laid it down. He set to working the helm, not caring this time that three Boys were watching every bit of it. How else would they learn?

Mate worked on his own solution and seemed to forget about his students.

Trew and the others forgot about completing their assigned problems. There was wind to feel and a pursuit in progress and the whole main deck in tumult.

There was a ship out there, distant at first, but the Fortress was closing with her.

Finally, they laid eyes on her. The new ship didn’t look like the Fortress. She had three masts, though many of the sayles were down and being stored. She moved sluggishly over the Purple Sea.

Slap-clunk, slap-clunk. The fearsome old man should have his name changed to Slap-Clunk.

The Commander arrived on the helm deck with his peering scope. It Glowed blue while he fixed his stare into the distance.

“Last Sayle pirates,” the Commander pronounced. “I recognize more than one of them by sight. Their knowing how to come and go as they please, that’s some fiercesome work.”

“Aye,” Compass Mate said. “There was a story the last time I was in port.”

“Aye,” the Commander said. “The secrets are out. There’s treason in Northguard for this to happen.”

That was a word that made Trew choke. Treason…inside Sea Guard. It couldn’t be possible.

“Should we adjust course?” Compass Mate asked. He glanced down at the bronze coverings of the cannons on the main deck.

The Commander jabbed his finger toward the signal mast. “The earlier courage out of Lighthouse Four has given way to cowardice from Lighthouse Three. I’ve no discretion, not after my tantrum, as they’re calling it, not unless I wish a court martial when we put into port. Captain Fitche would set one, too, I know it. I know ‘im. We served when I was a bleeding new Mate and he was a Boy in his third class. Dim and a little shite even then, hasn’t improved with age.”

Trew couldn’t have heard that. The hatred between the Commander and the Captain had started that long ago?

“Had we not been pottering down here dealing with this engine that won’t work, we wouldn’t have known. A little bad luck can give way to fair, can’t it?”

“Aye, Commander.”

“Even if they released me to do as I wished, I’d hesitate. New crew, too new. They’re just starting with the rope drill and not performing that well. I’m not letting them on a facet cannon.”

“The Mates could…,” Compass Mate started to say.

“I could use Mates for the work, but that would let me fire maybe two cannons. That ship is well crewed, I can tell. Our two cannons versus four or six. I do not care for wasting life and spilling Sea Guard blood.”

Trew closed his eyes a moment. He’d once been excited for battle, at least the kind in books and flimsies. Now he was grateful.

“Aye, Commander.”

Compass Mate sounded unhappy, not relieved.

“I wonder if that ship is the one that put this skiff in the water — and that man who perished. I would love to break it with our cannons then skim up the splinters for the pirate bounty. Fitche saw we weren’t manned for anything, not even making way on a calm day.”

He left without further comment.

Mate was quiet a moment. He looked and saw blank slates and Boys wrung out with emotion. His navigation lesson had been capsized.

“Go get your dinner now. It might be a difficult afternoon,” Mate said.

They left their slates on the helm deck. Trew listened as he stood in line. The Men were more exhausted from the mental effort of the rope drill than exhilarated by seeing a pirate ship. Others had increased their mutters about omens, curses, and bad luck. Some began to talk of doom, as in a ‘doomed sayling.’

Trew hoped not. The Sea was getting crowded with skiffs and Last Sayle pirates, but this was very much the place he wanted to be. Still, his hands shook when he picked up a bowl and a mug. Everyone’s hands were shaking.

XX

Continue to Chapter Fourteen

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Twelve: The Kraken of the Purple Sea

Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.

XX

Trew tried and failed to twist his head in any direction. He couldn’t see what it was that had saved him, nothing beyond the smooth, mast-thick edifice that cradled him.

He spent the several minutes before they overtook the Fortress trying to guess what could be faster than a ship of the Sea Guard, even one with a broken engine. He decided this was something fashioned by a Mate or even the Commander. He couldn’t wait to learn this bit of facet-work.

Trew, Black, and their savior came to parity with the Fortress, but their landing on the main deck was in no way gentle. Black called out in pain. He had had the worst of it in the last few minutes. He had fallen from the arm to the railing, though Trew softened that landing, before he hit the water. Now his wounds were troubling him.

Trew had the breath knocked out of him. He sat up and blinked. His mind was sluggish just then. He also found he was shivering. Being in the water and then flying through the air had robbed him of much warmth.

He still didn’t know what that thing had been. When Trew turned around, his savior was gone. The evidence of its presence was some lightly Glowing water on the main deck which several Men began pushing off with brooms.

“What saved us?” Trew asked. “Who made it?”

He wanted to know who he should thank.

“Two Boys falling over and the Sea spitting them back…”

Trew kept looking around. Who had made that?

“…care of the Kraken.”

A Kraken…

“Ye might see it again in your lives, but those coils will ne’er save ye again. Yer devils fer sure, but the Kraken favors ye.”

Trew had gone through a period where he’d been enchanted with the Kraken, but his books and flimsies had contained so little about it. Just a nod here, a comment there, and three different engravings that looked nothing alike.

He hadn’t thought the Kraken would be so massive or so red. None of the engravings had shown a tentacle as being wider than a person, especially a ten year old Boy.

“Get them into my cabin,” the Commander said to the crew of Men and Mates who were close. “Don’t ye touch ‘em, but get a knife and cut their rags off ‘em. The rags and the knife go into the Purple Sea. Dry them off, get them below to the cautery. Bathe them in fresh water. Fresh, ye mind, and three changes…”

He turned to look at Trew and Black. “Did ye swallow that poison?”

Poison? Trew was instantly baffled.

“The water? Did ye swallow the water?” the Commander shouted.

“I don’t know,” Black said. He was cradling his damaged arm.

Trew thought yes. He nodded.

The Commander stared at the Cautery Mate. “After they’re dowsed, heal that one’s arm, not before. Then give them water and watered gawgrie. Overfill them three times, make them scream to piss. After they do, ye get that filthy fluid out the port. Or Sparrow Boy will turn blue and Cricket Boy will start growing scales and fins.”

What… What did he mean about poison and fins? Trew wondered.

No one said.

Trew wasn’t terrified, but he was very close to it.

The next minutes were a rush. Trew blushed as his uniform was cut from him and tossed. His oddments, including his wooden coins, were now upon the Purple Sea. He was dried, those towels were tossed, then he and Black were rushed to the cautery. There he and Black were shoved into a wooden tub and doused with freezing water, time and again.

Trew saw only one thing as he shivered. There were small ports opened to the nonexistent breeze. He saw something flung overboard. Then he considered the shapes. The Men on broom duty had thrown their tools overboard.

Everything that had touched that water was returned to the water.

The Commander hadn’t been lying about the danger, had he?

When Cautery Mate was out of earshot, Black said, “Thank you, Red.”

Trew shivered some more, but nodded.

That was an all-encompassing apology. For being stupid, for getting knocked off, for almost drowning Trew.

Trew decided to let out some of his curiosity, now that they were safe.

“Why were you up there?” Trew asked.

“I was trying to get an answer to that question.”

Trew remembered what Black had said he was going to do. “You went to Chesty.”

“Aye, but Chesty said he didn’t know.”

Trew nodded. He also remembered looking at Chesty when Black had been climbing the signal mast. The Able Seaman had expected something. What? For Black to fall to his death. Maybe, maybe not.

“Then he said that Drish would. Drish was part of the sayle drill…”

“On the yardarm?”

“Aye. So I climbed up there before Mate came back for more Glow training.”

Chesty really had put all of this into motion. In that moment, Trew knew a fiery hatred. If he’d had a chance to push Chesty into the Purple Sea, he might have done it then.

Trew said none of this. “So he was nice about it?”

“No, coarse not.”

Some times Trew hated being right.

“Chesty said I was a babby, a coward… Of course I climbed up. I was crying, but I climbed it.”

Trew vowed he was going to find a way to repay Chesty, something less obvious than knocking him into the Sea, something more painful. The Able knew more facet-work than Trew did, of course, so it would have to be repayment in another currency.

“I didn’t want to be the only one to fail.”

Trew nodded. He understood.

A man looking to grin like a Cheshire cat had put an idea into Black’s head. That idea merged with Black’s desperation and almost killed Black and Trew. It was a lesson Trew hoped never to forget, casual cruelty could be little different from a murderous plan thicker than a deck plank.

“I should have listened to you.”

Trew put his plan for Chesty into the back of his mind. He started to say something to absolve his friend, but Cautery Mate returned with a few helpers.

This time the water they carried was steaming. “Shivering so much you’ll shimmy right out o’that tub. Thought to warm some water fer ye.”

“Thank ye,” Trew said.

That second change of water was a relief.

When Trew was able to feel his toes again, he looked around for someone to thank. The cautery had emptied of all but the two Boys in the tub.

This was becoming an irritation. Trew and Black scared even the Cautery Mate.

“Was it really a Kraken?” Black asked. He was still shaking.

Trew shrugged.

“Why did it save us? They’re deadly.”

“I don’t know much about them. Wanted to, but could never find a good flimsy,” Trew said.

He didn’t think their savior deadly. Fast and smart, aye, but not deadly. It had managed to pry Black from Trew. It had known to do so. That was a thinking beast.

“Me mam’s favorite book — or one of them — is on the rarest of creatures. The book’s old, a hundred years or more, and it says that the Krakens are even older.”

Trew wanted to see that book now.

“What I read just said they were rare.”

He had touched the red skin of a Kraken and understood almost nothing of what had happened. He wanted to know.

“Aye. But as ancient as anything in the Red World,” Black said.

“Oh?”

“One part of the book said Sea Guard formed up first because of a Kraken long ago. Men with boats, small craft, tried to hunt it and kill it.”

Trew hadn’t heard any of this before. He needed to find a copy of that book.

“Their hunts never worked?”

“The book said the early settlers mounted, I think, seven tries. Out of all the boats and Men they sent, only one ship and a handful of survivors returned. Since it formed up, Sea Guard has never tried to hurt it. It might chase it away if it ventures to shore, but it knows better than to hunt a Kraken.”

“Sea Guard learned something. So did we.”

“Aye.”

“It’s kind. Today it plucked us from death.”

Black nodded.

The water in the bath was cool now.

“No reason to hunt the Kraken,” the Commander said crisply. His voice echoed down the hall outside the cautery.

“The Kraken itself ain’t deadly, not in my experience.”

Clunk-slide. Clunk-slide.

He was approaching slowly.

“We would have died but for it,” Trew said before he knew to stopper his mouth.

It was odd to try to talk to someone who wasn’t yet in the room and visible. Odder still to say something so disagreeable.

“Someone threw over a rope and a buoy. Conked ye good. A rush like that often bleeds more than it salves. No time to think. No time to plan.”

“I’m glad someone tried something,” Trew said. “You didn’t stop for us.” He knew he was pushing beyond any boundary of good sense.

This Commander enjoyed no amount of dissent.

“We perish, each alone. An old saylor’s warning not to fall off a Sea Guard ship. In the Purple Sea, death is all that awaits ye.”

“I’ve swum in the Sea,” Trew said.

“Close to shore?” the Commander demanded.

“Aye.”

“Water flowing off from the land dilutes the effect. Yer mam made ye scrub after, didn’t she?”

“Aye.” Trew hadn’t remembered that part, but it was true.

“It’s worse in the deep, worst of all when the Kraken is near. The miasma of facet that travels with — or precedes — the Kraken is why we think of the Kraken as deadly.”

The Kraken wasn’t deadly, the water was? Trew didn’t understand that at all.

“Such a creature puts out a massive amount of facet that poisons the water.”

The Commander stepped fully into the cautery.

“If any fish come in through a rift, they’ll survive exactly until the Kraken comes to investigate, surrounded by that poison water. It was why I thought you dead. You certainly plunged deep into the Sea. You’re dense with facet, denser than I’d thought. That water should have buoyed up a village of a thousand, but it didn’t.”

That surprised both Trew and Black. No book either of them had ever read covered such ideas. Poison water. Density of facet.

“I’ve never heard about poison water,” Black said.

“Aye. Tis true, though little known.”

The wisdom of the saylor didn’t often make it into books, Trew suspected. People out here with nothing but the Sea learned things that people on land didn’t know or care to know.

The Commander fixed his stare at Black, who shrank a little in the tub. “Now, climbing the signal mast during sayle drill was a fool thing.”

“Aye,” Black said.

“I got the story out of Chesty. I’m displeased. In him and in ye.”

Black was shivering and flushing at the same time.

“As for Blue Boy, I have differing reports. Ye actually let yerself fall into the Sea?”

“To save my friend, aye.”

“A minute longer in that water and ye’d have died. Do ye ken?”

Trew knew it all too well. He could still feel the burn of his muscles, the screaming of his lungs. He knew.

“Now ye’re bobbing around like lumps. Pour the water over your hair or we’ll have to shave ye bald. Both of ye. We may do it anyway. All that facet cannot do ye but harm.”

Trew started pouring the cooling water over his hair.

“Blue Boy, ye’re braver than I’d have expected. Fool-headed, but brave.”

Trew would take those words as a compliment.

Of course, the Commander didn’t stop speaking then. “I canna say you did well, but at least you would have died trying to save a life. There is some virtue in that.”

Every single time Trew started to appreciate the Commander’s few virtues, he had to continue speaking his mind.

There was the sound of running close to the cautery. Compass Mate rushed in.

The Commander didn’t spare a glance for the door. “Late, Mate.”

“Yes, Commander.” That was all he could say.

He gaped, looking at what little there was to see. Two boys in a tub in the cautery wasn’t much of an explanation.

Trew wondered what the rumors were already proclaiming.

Squeezed to death by a Kraken.

The Blue Boy took on so much facet he’s now turned red. What else could they say?

They were touched by the Kraken and were now growing tentacles.

“I expect ye’ll get ‘em uniforms that fit. That Blue One looked like he was swimming in a sack.”

Mate looked for wet uniforms.

The Commander shook his head. “Requisition fresh sayle. Their old ones are dancing in the Purple Sea now.”

His eyes were on Compass Mate.

Mate just nodded.

“Ye should have been watching ‘em. Boys and trouble are fast friends.” His voice was in a low rasp, but it was loud enough to fill the cautery.

Compass Mate stood tall. “Aye, Commander.”

The Commander departed.

Trew and Black answered Mate’s few questions as best they could. Mate was at a loss for anything further to ask well before he left. Surviving a dip in the Purple Sea through the intervention of the Kraken…

Trew understood that Mate was having difficulties.

Perhaps he’d return with clothing or rage or some new task that would lead Black into almost breaking his neck.

Cautery Mate returned and the water fountained out of the tub before it was replaced by fresh, though cold, water.

Trew shivered. He started his hand Glowing.

“No facet work at all,” the Cautery Mate said. “I remembered cold is good for those suffering from facet overexposure.”

He left then.

“He just made that up,” Black said as he poured some of this chilled water over his damp, straggled hair.

“Aye,” Trew agreed.




Much later, Trew and Black were quiet and shivering lightly in that emptied tub. Cautery Mate had been in after that third change of water to fix Black’s arm. They were healthy and free and had not lost their hair to the Cautery Mate’s shears.

All they lacked was fresh clothing.

Plus oddments for their pockets.

Trew tried to remember how many wooden coins he’d lost with his old uniform. He could replace them from Father’s gift.

Compass Mate returned with two uniforms. “I sewed these myself. Take care of ‘em. I won’t do it again.”

“Aye, Mate,” Trew said.

He was angry at Black and Trew. This wasn’t going to be good, these next few days.

“Tomorrow will be signal lessons — and sewing. Ye’ll be making your own clothing. Get dressed and rest in your cabins.”

“Aye, Mate.”

The frazzled Mate left the cautery then.

Trew had some trouble getting out of that tub. It had sloped sides and was still a bit damp.

He tried to leap from the tub. It worked well enough, but was ungainly. Now he was close to the port pulling on his new uniform — which still looked like rags even if they’d just been cut and sewed.

The words from the main deck drifted down to his ear.

“Give up sayle drill. The Men can perform it in the calm.”

“Aye, Commander.” That sounded like Ship’s Mate.

“We’ll just ignore the signals.”

Trew started listening intently then.

“Commander?”

So did Ship’s Mate.

“Fitche is having a good time keeping me chained to my desk. My responsibility is the ship and her crew. We have people to train and evolutions to perfect.”

“But you don’t want to see…”

“I’ll rip the viewer off my cabin wall. None of ye pay attention to what they’re saying. I’ll have it out with Fitche when we put into Northguard.”

The Commander had given up on his sly rebellion. This now sounded like war between the Commander and the Captain. That couldn’t be good.

There were steps outside the cautery. Trew stepped away from the port.

“Still here?” Cautery Mate asked. “Good. One last thing before you skitter. Take these jugs.”

Trew did. It was fashioned from wood.

“You drink one down tonight. You come back tomorrow and refill it. Fresh water. Those Men on main deck wouldn’t know the first thing about separating water from salt and facet. You ask me or Compass Mate. He knows. Ship’s Mate, too, but he’s busy.”

“Aye, Mate,” they both said.

Sprocket was waiting for them underdeck, near the Boys’ cabins. They spent a few hours in Sprocket’s cabin discussing Krakens, poison water, Chesty the trickster, the Commander’s canniness, and much else. The noise of the clocks was quite irritating, Trew found.

The conversation was awkward, as well. Black flushed red several times and Sprocket stumbled over his words when forming up questions.

Even in that uncomfortable environment, Trew recognized that flushes and clocks were better than crickets chirping away the silence.




The gathering had broken when Black said he was exhausted. He had had the worst day out of all of them.

Trew excused himself at the same time. He went to his cabin and drank of his fresh water and left his jug in his cabin. He went up on deck rather than remain with his crickets. He scanned the coming dusk for any sign of the Kraken. There was none.

His eyes settled on the skiff.

The red man was redder now, his limbs were sunken, and his chest was barely moving.

His rescue had never been more than a death watch.

Trew knew it, he knew that the man in the skiff was near-dead and soon-dead and close-to-dead.

Trew knew something about those conditions, given what had happened earlier. He’d also been soon-dead at least according to every thinking man on board the Fortress. He’d been given up as dead, he and Black.

We perish, each alone.

No.

It might be saylor wisdom, but Trew had no use for it just then.

He didn’t like near-dead and soon-dead and close-to-dead.

Trew had received a gift of life from the Kraken. He wasn’t so fast or so strong or so mighty, but he could at least attempt to provide a similar gift to one who needed it.

Trew might have been useless the night before, but now he could at least take fresh water down to the dying man.

He went back to his cabin, drank his water, and took the jug to the cautery to ask for someone to separate him more water. One of the Men there helped Trew, then shooed him away.

Trew pilfered what he could from the galley and went on deck.

He waited until the Watch had settled into a sleepy pattern. Their apathy toward the skiff was more profound this evening.

Trew climbed down the rope again, which was harder when he was carting a jug filled with water and a little food.

Trew set the skiff to rocking again when his feet touched it.

The eyes of the dying man popped open and remained open this time. They fixed on Trew and were full of terror.

The man with the sun-boils was dying and he knew it.

The water and food wasn’t enough.

He needed someone skilled with healing facet.

Trew got closer to the dying man and gave him the cold oat gruel. He washed down every tiny amount with water. It was slow and tiring to do it.

Trew wouldn’t abandon this man to his death. He would offer what he could. He had no facet appropriate to the task, and had no hope of convincing anyone with the right training to help. He could hope some water and food might help him — or, at least, ease his suffering.

The man’s eyes never left Trew.

He tried to say something more than once, but all his focused effort couldn’t form up a single word.

What communication there was traveled from one pair of eyes to another. The message wasn’t thanks. It was a little rage, a little something else. Terror, Trew’s first thought, seemed more and more correct.

Trew said nothing the entire time he was there.

His attempts at words the prior night had been so inadequate. He just fed the man and gave him water.

It wouldn’t be enough. Trew couldn’t lie to himself about that.

The dying man spit up a mouthful of gruel.

In his weak state he ate less than a babby.

Trew threw the excess gruel into the Sea. He looked at the dying man, really looked. Those boils looked awful, though they were no reason to let a man die without even making an effort.

Sea Guard was filled with the brave, the wise, and also the cowardly. Sometimes the last and worst class even became Commanders. Trew would never forget this man, the first dying person he’d ever been close to. In Gawgrie, Mother had always kept Trew and Ceal away from anyone sick.

He carried his wooden jug back up the rope with him. He sat in his room and drank the rest down.

He fell asleep easier that night. He wasn’t plagued by dreams of drowning, Krakens, or men with red boils.

XX

Continue to Chapter Thirteen.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Eleven: Sayle Drill

Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.

XX

The Boys were quiet after seeing Mate partially defeated. Trew was the first to speak. “We’ll be busy all day.”

“We’d best get to the route question he asked. I know he’ll growl if we forget it,” Black said with no enthusiasm.

“I know what I’m doing,” Sprocket said.

The Boys each began their plans then.

Trew paused to look over the railing at the skiff. The Fortress was still tugging it from the starboard side.

Trew could see a strange kind of double-headed fountain rising up from the Purple Sea. It was following the skiff and one of its heads poured clear water onto the face of the ill man. The second arc spewed reddish-white material back into the Sea.

That was salt separation, Trew knew. Mother and Father and many of the workers at the orchard could do something like that, just not so elegant.

Trew looked around for the Mate or Man sending water to the ill man. Trew discarded a few people staring down at the skiff. There. Trew saw Cautery Mate standing close to the Commander’s cabin, but looking down at the skiff with no little concentration.

He had made this fountain.

A little water might cool the man and relieve his thirst. It wouldn’t heal him.

That was an old grievance by now, one which Trew didn’t think he could remedy.

Trew turned and took in the whole deck. Black had already sidled up to Chesty, which was a mistake. Sprocket had disappeared. Trew looked for Jock, the one that the Commander had tasked the night before to make an emergency signal.

He was finishing his meal on the port side near the bow. Seeing that meal reminded Trew that he had meant to save some of his food for the evening or the following morning. He’d saved nothing.

These were going to be hungry nights on the Fortress, weren’t they?

Trew began walking toward the bow.

He saw Jock pull up a fountain of water to wash his bowl and mug. He didn’t use the salt separating fountain that Cautery Mate had. Maybe that was why everything Trew had eaten on this ship tasted so much of salt. Every bowl, plate, and mug was rinsed in salt.

Trew began crossing the deck when the Commander exited his cabin and veered for the signal mast.

Trew paused so he wouldn’t get trampled.

“Ship’s Mate?”

Trew had to step out of the way not to be crushed by that Mate. A word from the Commander could set someone to a full run instantly.

“Have ye followed the signals?”

“No, Commander.”

The Commander grunted and jabbed his well-covered arm at the signal mast. “Lighthouse Four reports it observed me burning a book. It wants me to explain myself.”

He shook his head and laughed.

“They’re so set to spying on me, they don’t even notice how a skiff lands forty miles away from the nearest land. They didn’t notice how a dying man wound up inside it. The best facet we have, the best optics, all made worthless by bad orders from Northguard.”

The Mate seemed at a loss for how to respond. “Yes, Commander.”

Trew decided those were almost always safe words aboard the Fortress.

The Commander glared at the signal mast, then pivoted to look at the Mate. “We’ll have sayle drill now.”

The Mate nodded, but stopped halfway through. “The wind is becalmed.”

“All the better for training Landsmen how the sayles work. We have a bunch from Newdubbin, captives who’ve come to sea, if you noticed.”

“I did.”

“We rig our sayles differently from what they’re used to. Let them learn now before we have winds to contend with.”

“Aye, Commander.”

“As you plan the evolution, don’t forget that only one Man in four has facet to work with. It’s harder with so little facet available. They’ll have to use their arms, not their minds.”

“Aye, Commander.”

The Commander was one of the few watching the signal mast as Ship’s Mate began executing his orders.

Nothing much happened at first, Trew noticed. Not at the signal mast, not anywhere.

A few Men dropped what they were doing and set to their new tasks. Others observed and threw their bodies into fulfilling the unexpected orders.

Men opened recesses in the deck and in the front of the Commander’s cabin. Great masses of sayle landed on the main deck. Then others began working with rope.

Trew was cut off from where Jock stood, not participating. What was his role on the ship, Trew wondered.

Sayles began ascending.

The sayles working their way up the signal mast blocked most of the mast from most of the possible angles. The sayles generally were putting up a huge obstruction to most sightlines.

Trew caught onto what was really happening.

If a Lighthouse was sending a message, the Commander had a reason not to see it. He was positively enjoined from responding, as the sayle would block whatever Glows he might attempt to order.

This was the equivalent of a tantrum, but one that could possibly resemble a useful exercise for the ship’s company.

When the scolding came down for the Commander, he’d be able to respond that he’d been doing his proper duty. It was clever, Trew thought. Irritating, but clever.

“Get to your duties, Boy,” the Commander growled at Trew.

Trew skittered from the barking and hid for a moment.

The Commander began stomping around and underneath the signal mast, observing things and alarming the Men, making them quake.

Clunk-slide.

Clunk-slide.

The Commander was making plenty of noise. He was agitated and less hugger mugger now.

Trew watched the Commander pause and look over the side at the skiff still tethered to the Fortress.

Then the Commander returned to his cabin.

Trew ventured forward from his hiding nook.

It was like their Commander had had three personalities stuffed into one body. Well, maybe more than three. Five or seven or eleven. Trew did not doubt he would see more of them as the days drew on.

Trew looked for Jock. The man was still on deck, still fiddling with ropes.

Trew wondered what he should say as he zipped underneath the site of most of the ship’s activity.

When he approached Jock, Trew went with what was on his mind.

“Does he always shout so?” Trew asked, nodding back toward the Commander’s cabin.

“Ne’er served with ‘im bafore.”

The Man didn’t spare a glance for Trew.

“He trusted you last night,” Trew said.

The man paused in his effort. He seemed to be running facet through different segments of rope. He glanced at Trew for a second. “Ye’re ta nipper who were’t on deck, eh?”

“Aye.”

“Supposed ter only be responsible sorts put on Watch.” Jock shrugged. “He’d ha’ used a Mate ha’ he seen one not sodden in gawgrie. His own fault, ta supper he dished up and ta cask he unbunged.”

Trew finally saw what the man was doing. His facet was untwining the distant end of the ropes he touched.

Did they unwind and rewind ropes on the Fortress? Was rope in that kind of shortage now?

Little bits of string were always useful. “Can I sneak a bit for my oddments pocket?” Trew asked.

Jock pulled out his knife and cut a dozen little slivers of rope for Trew.

Trew stuffed the strings into his pocket.

Jock looked at Trew, expecting for Trew to skitter back to his duties. Or leave Jock to his.

“How was it working the signal mast?” Trew asked.

“Curious tot, aren’t ye?”

“It’s all so new.”

“Aye, suppose tis. Signal mast is intimidating.”

Jock hadn’t asked Trew to leave. He was becoming more and more verbose. This was what Trew had done with Bynes, in Mother’s peach orchard, when he needed to know something. Be curious, ask questions, and someone proud of his work would talk about it.

“Where’s the Lighthouse that’s watching us?” Trew asked. “The Commander was just complaining about it.”

“Aye, he was.” Jock shook his head. “So yer Compass Mate set ye ta problem.”

Trew felt a tinge of frustration. “You knew?”

“He might’a mentioned a few things yesterday. We’re na supposed to make it easy on ye.”

Compass Mate was fast becoming Trew’s nemesis. He was full of brains, a rum bite. “No, that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” Trew said, not meaning a word of it.

Jock laughed.

Trew spun around, looking at the horizon. “Can ye see it?”

“Aye. I know where to look,” Jock said.

Trew made his spin again, but slower. “There.”

There was a tall gray something in the distance.

“Ahh.”

That wasn’t a noise congratulating success. “Well, what is it, if it isn’t a Lighthouse?”

“Dun know. I just know that it’ain’t the Lighthouse.”

“So…”

Jock pointed in a different direction. Something in the far distance glimmered under the sun. Trew couldn’t even make out how high it was.

“That? They’ve hidden it?”

“Aye, a little. Sometime she’s hard ta see. Depends on ta Mate running ta Illusion Engine. Thi’un is new, I’d hedge. Not up to mark yet.”

In all his reading, Trew had never come across an Illusion Engine. But he could imagine it. He smiled.

“We’ve got to be twenty miles away,” Trew said.

“Closer to thirty-four…,” Jock said, then realized what he’d said. “My, ye’re a clever one, ain’t ye?”

“Thank you, Jock.”

“T’ain’t me name. I’m called Arkwright where I’m from. The dirty hocks on deck keep calling me Jock. Dun much care fer it.”

“Thank you, Arkwright.”

“Keep it ter yerself.”

“Aye.”

Jock glanced around the main deck. “Ain’t going to ask about our course last night?”

It couldn’t be that easy, could it? A little bit of kindness to the right person and…the vault opens? “You studied navigation?” Trew asked.

“I’ve been to sea fer seven years. Be a pur saylor if I ain’t know.”

Trew almost let himself smile.

“I know we started at Twobay then sailed west past Last Sayle…”

“Then ‘twere dark. No way to fix yer place.”

“Aye.”

Arkwright grunted. “We turned southeast, Boy.”

Trew tried to picture it in his mind. They were nowhere near where Floats was supposed to be.

“Why?”

“Commander’s prerogative.”

Trew nodded, not knowing what that meant. His interest might get Arkwright to explain.

“We’re doing broad loops now.”

“Oh. Out here?” Trew asked.

“Aye, well away from all eyes, save a Lighthouse.”

“Why?”

“Embarrassing how pur we’re moving. Commander’s letting the engine mucks figure out how ter run that new mistake.”

Mistake was a harsh term.

“It’s been trouble?”

“They lowered ‘er in a week before sayling. Nothing good’s come out o’ her since. ”

That didn’t sound good at all. “The engine doesn’t work?”

“When I ca’swim faster than ta Fortress can cut….”

Trew really didn’t want to know any more about the engine. He had enough to worry him as it was. “Thank you, Arkwright.”

“I said nothing. In fact, I ‘member just scolding yer about yer clumsy ways of gaining information.”

“Aye, I’ll remember the scolding.”

Trew had gotten what he needed for Compass Mate, but he was still plenty curious about other aspects of his new home. In particular he wanted to know more about sun spots or whatever they were called. Trew still hadn’t seen anyone other than himself venture down to the ill man in the skiff.

“What about that skiff and the sick man inside it?”

“Never did a turn in the cautery.”

“Oh, but what…”

Trew noticed movement. He looked over — and up — and saw that Black had climbed more than halfway up the signal mast.

“Excuse me,” Trew said.

Arkwright nodded. “Good luck wit tha Mate o’ yers. He’s a trickster-sort, I’d hedge.”

Trew supposed that was true as he ran to the signal mast. He saw only one other person looking at Black.

Chesty.

Chesty had to have put Black up to this for some reason. He was worse as a trickster than Compass Mate.

“Black,” Trew hissed.

Black was moving slowly. Trew thought he could hear his friend crying.

No one else noticed that because ropes and sayles were coming alive all over the signal mast. As Black pulled himself to stand on a yardarm, Trew trotted along in a similar position many feet below.

“Black, climb back down.”

The Boy didn’t hear Trew. He ventured out onto the yardarm. Trew guessed he was trying to speak to one of the Men up there. What in the whole Red World had Chesty stuffed into Black’s head?

Trew made a new discovery then. The yardarm spanned wider than the main deck.

Trew got up on the railing.

Trew craned his head so he could see between the monstrous sayles and all the ropes flying this way and fro.

A rope caught Black. He cried out and clung to the rope a moment. A second later his feet left the arm, then Black fell.

Trew was just underneath when Black fell on Trew. Trew cried out but they both went over the railing. Trew threw his arm out and caught a grasp of a balluster. It was much wider than his hand could secure itself to.

Black splashed into the Purple Sea.

“Help,” Trew called out.

It was a long drop to the Purple Sea. Black was already thrashing down there.

“Help,” he called out again.

Sprocket was on-deck now and running toward Trew. Trew looked down but couldn’t see his friend in the water. Where had Black gone? Couldn’t he swim at all?

“Throw a rope or something,” he called out.

Trew let go, then. He could have held on a little longer, but he dropped so he could help his friend.

The coldness of the water stole Trew’s breath from him. He bobbed to the surface but it was hard to stay afloat. He saw Black bob up. Trew swam toward him. When he got within an arm’s length, Black seemed to leap through the water and conjoined himself to Trew. The position was awkward as Black hugged Trew’s arms close to his body. They might not look it, but Black’s thin arms could wield some force when they wanted, especially when they tightened around Trew.

They were both sinking in the water, thrashing.

Trew could have survived that when he felt something heavy crash into his skull.

He felt stunned and went limp. He could see, though. He could feel the sting of the salt and facet in his eyes. He just couldn’t move.

He caught a glimpse of something floating next to him. It was attached to a puddle of rope floating on top of the water.

The next moment, the Boys sank. Trew felt as his lungs screamed. His muscles screamed. Black squeezed even harder. Trew felt the tickle of useless bubbles ejected from Black’s mouth and nose.

Trew hoped for help from above.

They plummeted in the water. Had Trew packed his pockets with stones? The water seemed determine to have them.

He didn’t think of Father or Ceal or anyone.

He didn’t think of the Fortress.

Trew didn’t think. He wasn’t a person just then. He was a bundle of fear sinking through darkening water. But all his fears were true. There was no help. There was only squeezing from Black and demands from his lungs.

As the pain crescendoed, there was a moment when their descent stopped.

Trew, with Black strangling him, hung in the water.

He could see something moving through the murk toward him. He could still see things even though he was so far from the surface and the facet was stinging his eyes.

Trew saw then felt something curl around him. He felt Black let go. He felt his arms free.

Trew reached out to touch the thing that had curled around him. That something was broader than the signal mast and smooth, ever so smooth. It held Trew more gently than Black had.

Their descent reversed.

Up.

Up.

Up.

Trew could see that Black was close to him. They flew upwards through the water. That thing, that arm, pulled them to where there was an infinite supply of air.

In the light, Trew’s savior — some kind of construct sent to help — was red as red could be.

A second…red something…held Black above the water. Trew vomited up the sea water once then again. He was facing upward, looking at the red sky and the reddish-orange sun. The glare hurt his stinging eyes, but it was a welcomed sight.

Trew turned his head this way and that. The Fortress was some distance ahead of them.

It took him a few seconds to understand it. The ship hadn’t slowed or stopped or attempted to turn.

The ship had just left Trew and Black to die…

Trew ignored that for now.

He took in the air. He took in the sky.

He glanced at the massive something that had plucked him from death and now held him aloft.

He had no idea what had saved him.

Trew could hear Black sobbing. Trew was smiling, laughing even. He was alive and had survived one thing that should have killed him. He knew he’d be far more solemn when he returned to the Fortress. For now he was alive and flying and he didn’t know how either of them were possible.

XX

Continue to Chapter Twelve.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cricket Boy: Chapter Ten: The Training Book

Cricket Boy is a multi-chapter fantasy naval adventure (Horatio Hornblower with magic!) I'm releasing on my website, among other venues.

What's it about?

Trew Gawgrie wants to go to sea. That means joining the Sea Guard and starting with the worst job, but he's a dreamer and won't be dissuaded. Sea Guard is a much harder place than Trew can imagine.

New to the story? Start with Chapter One. You can also read the story on WriteOn.

XX

Trew felt like he hadn’t slept at all when he got up the next morning. He dressed and made his way through the below-decks labyrinth. When he arrived on main deck, he said nothing, not about the sick man in the skiff or his nighttime adventures in rope climbing.

“Morning, Red. You hear about the skiff yet?” Sprocket asked. He looked tired, too, but his voice was animated.

Trew had more than heard. He shrugged, though.

Sprocket and Black took turns filling him in. They had already heard a rather complete outline of the story.

“But who is he?” Black asked, nodding to where the rope came over the railing.

He also looked poorly, which completed the set. None of the Boys had slept. Trew had been thinking ill thoughts of himself. He wondered about Sprocket and Black, though. Nerves? Excitement? Doubt?

“No one knows. He hasn’t spoken,” Sprocket said, like an expert.

Trew knew that Sprocket was correct. The man in the skiff might never speak and could barely open his eyes. Everyone was just waiting for him to die, which still embittered Trew.

Couldn’t someone with some skill try to help the man? Trew was useless, but not everyone on the Fortress was.

“I heard from one fellow — the one who spoke with us last night,” Sprocket started to say.

“Chesty,” Trew volunteered.

“Right. He said that the man in the skiff had been kidnapped from Twobay.”

If a story that Chesty told turned out not to be half-rot and half-invention, Trew would eat a handful of his red crickets.

“No,” Black said. “He was on a merchie, but got thrown overboard after he contracted sun spots.”

Sun spots. Is that what those pustules were?

But why would a merchie be hauling around a skiff? That story was perfect rot. “Who said that?” Trew asked.

“Cautery Mate. Not very nice, he isn’t. He still smelled drunk.”

“You talked to him?” Sprocket asked.

“Nah. He said it where I could hear.”

Black was someone who could probably hide wherever he wanted. He seemed like he could just disappear.

Trew covered his mouth with his hand, but he still yawned. His stomach also protested its hunger. His next meal wouldn’t come until noon. All of his day’s rations were due then. He’d have to remember to keep some for tomorrow morning. Hunger was almost worse for Trew than lack of sleep.

Sprocket noticed. “I’ve been yawning, too. I couldn’t sleep with a dozen dozen clocks tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.”

Trew had been irritated by the music of his crickets, but they hadn’t kept him awake. Trew didn’t explain his own sleeplessness.

“Clocks are bad, yes. Sparrows, though, they never shut up,” Black said.

Trew yawned again.

He wondered why all of these little troubles handed to the Boys made a hubbub, more and more the later it got.

“None of you sleeping?” Compass Mate demanded. He still moved around without making noise. He and Ship’s Mate were like spectres: here then gone, nowhere then popping up behind.

“Sorry, sir…uh, Mate,” Trew said in a rush.

Sprocket and Black made similar apologies.

“Bah. Sleep boys otherwise we’ll give your cabins to the geese we’ll pick up in Byswater. Live geese, fifty they say, and horrible noisy.”

He was enjoying himself this morning. “You squandered your time to sleep. Now it’s time to work. The book says we start with Glows.”

There was a book on how to scare Boys — or ‘train’ them? Trew wanted a copy of all Mate’s tricks before he used them.

“All of you been to Prime, right?” Mate asked.

“Yes, Mate,” they said.

“So, first topic, what’s facet?”

An examination. Why not spear them with a question or two? Would ‘I don’t know’ get him a smile or a clout to the head?

“You.” Mate pointed at Sprocket.

“My parents said it was how we knew that the world loved us. It’s how we make this ship move, for example.”

Mate frowned. He looked to Black.

“The facet loop, right? Life, Death, Strengthen, Weaken, Bluff, Enlighten, Breeze, Current…”

“No,” Mate said.

“Oh,” Black said.

A nod to Trew meant he had to try and fail now.

“I don’t know what it is, but I can always smell it, that little tingle in my noise when someone has put some facet about.”

Mate shook his head. “No, no, and no. Let’s try an easier question. What’s a hand?” He nodded to Sprocket.

The Boy held up his right hand.

“Pick up that rope on the deck,” Mate said.

Sprocket did.

“Hands in your pockets.”

Sprocket dropped the rope and stuffed his hands away.

“Now pick up the rope.”

Sprocket’s eyes went wide. “I can’t.”

Mate snapped his fingers and the rope began to rise and drift toward him. “I can.”

Trew knew a few tricks like that, but less showy. Maybe he should have used one of them when he was asked.

“You have a body and you have a mind. You have hands, fingers, arms, a heart, lungs, legs, and all the rest. You can use them to do what you want, what you need, what the Fortress needs.”

Trew nodded.

“You can lift with your hands or your mind.”

Trew saw the evidence. He didn’t know how that snapping thing worked. He always had to touch something to make his facet work.

“Your mind can do many things. Answer questions and remember problems you need to solve, yes, but it can pick up a rope for you. That skill is but one of thousands we refer to as facets because we know that there are different parts of the mind you can train up. One part will help you remember. Another will allow you to execute that belt-looping trick that Cricket Boy used yesterday on the dock.”

Trew flushed. Mate had seen, noticed, and remembered.

“Sparrow Boy wasn’t wrong about the facet loop, it’s important to what we do, but it wasn’t the answer to the question I asked. With training, and care, you can push your mind, or your will, to grow things, set fire to them, push them with wind, wither them, fix them, lock them, almost anything.”

Trew had heard some of this before. He hadn’t known that this was what Mate wanted from him.

He had a little experience with some of these facets, but only a little. Prime got someone ready to learn from the masters in his field, whether the overseer of a peach orchard or the owner of a foundry or the Compass Mate on a ship.

“My job is to train your body and your mind. I'm going to put muscles on your scrawny bodies and I'm going to have you looping through your facets until you can send a Glow up the signal mast. Later on, you’ll learn to power a ship's engine and fire off a ship’s facet cannon.”

Trew grinned.

Mate noticed. “You will sweat. You will bleed. You will curse me, the Commander, the planks of the deck, and everything you can see with your eyes.”

Trew found he was still excited. Anything to make up for his foolish mistake in the dark the prior night. He wanted something new to occupy his mind.

“Each of you has a facet loop you were taught in Prime or by your parents. Don’t change it. You may need to add to it later, but today you aren’t changing a bit of it.”

Mate finally looked serious, like he was no longer saying something for the sheer joy of savoring an apprehensive face.

“Yes, Mate,” Trew said. Black and Sprocket were a second late echoing him.

“Mark me well. I’ll be wroth if you screw up today what you spent years learning. Don’t do it now, not when I’m in charge. You need to work out how to make a Glow with each link in your facet chain. If it’s Grow, I want a green Glow. If it’s Breeze, I want a glow in white or yellow. You will not skip links in the loop, you will not drop a facet out of your loop.”

Trew didn’t know any of that was possible. Maybe that was why Prime had shown them so little. It didn’t want them to err at a young age. Trew was ready to learn more, learn harder. “Yes, Mate.”

Black and Sprocket chimed in later. They didn’t seem as caught by the idea. Black seemed more troubled.

“We’ll start easier today. Grab something from your oddments pocket, something small, a bit of string or a piece of bark.”

Trew had plenty in his pocket.

Black looked stricken.

Trew brought out two bits of string and snuck one into Black’s hand.

Black should never sit down with someone to cheat at cards. He’d lose every wooden coin he had.

“So, step one: know what link you’re on. Don’t say it out loud. I don’t want your chain fooling with someone else’s, no mixing and matching the loops. What a disaster that would be. But put the facet in your mind. What color would it be, the natural color? Grow would be green.”

Trew was on Praise. His loop wasn’t all that long, he thought, but it was mix and match, some from Prime, some from working in the peach orchard, some from Father, plus a few things he’d put inside from his friends. It was kind of a mess.

Praise. What color would Praise be?

Trew blushed from Praise. So the Glow would be red. He nodded.

Trew looked to Black and Sprocket. They were struggling.

“Don’t look to me for help,” Mate said. “It’s the color you associate with the facet. Not what I would associate.”

Sprocket nodded. Black was slower to respond and fairly unsure.

Which made Mate dubious.

“Apply the facet to the bit of oddment. You’re not doing anything to the string or the bark other than making it emit a Glow. It shouldn’t move, it shouldn’t catch on fire.”

Trew opened his hand and looked at the string.

He wanted it to Glow red.

He’d seen Glows on the signal mast and above the Purple Sea last night. He knew what this should look like.

Then the string in his hand Glowed red. It was a pitiful amount, barely visible in the full sun of the morning.

“Good, it’s small but it’s something,” Mate said. His eyes swiveled to Sprocket and Black.

Sprocket had just the faintest aura of blue around his bark chip.

“Faint, but acceptable. It didn’t smoke at all.”

“No,” Sprocket said.

“Keep using it. String is easier, though. Remember to snag some next time you’re around cut ropes, just short bits.”

“Aye, Mate,” Sprocket said.

Black tried and tried.

“Don’t strain. You’ll have a devil’s time getting your facet to cooperate if you’re angry or scared or anything. Take a pause, Sparrow Boy.”

Mate took the string that Trew had given to Black. He returned with a thinner filament.

“In your minds, you’re now on the next link. Don’t make the next attempt on the old link. One try, then you move on to the next facet in your loop. Prime should have beaten that into you.”

“But I didn’t get it,” Black said.

“Sparrow Boy, you can try that one when it comes back around on your loop. Get the next facet in your mind.”

Trew almost frowned as he considered his situation. Praise had sort of worked for him, but the next one… He didn’t know why he’d ever put Damn into his loop, but he had. Praise first, then Damn. What color was that?

Not red, not green, not white or yellow or blue.

Black, maybe. Could he make a black Glow?

He tried. The tan string became black and it seemed that his hand was filled with shadows even though the Red Sun beat down upon it.

“Good,” Mate said. “Black isn’t an easy one. Keep going, Cricket Boy, keep going. One attempt for each facet in your loop.”

Trew got red to work, finally. He got blue and yellow and purple — and a questioning look from everyone assembled in the class. Why was Lock purple in his mind? Trew didn’t know.

He continued through his facet loop and was well and truly sweating by the time he could smell dinner cooking. Oatmeal, Trew thought, not his favorite.

Black had some success with the colors green and yellow. Sprocket seemed to succeed about half the time with no rhyme to what worked and what didn’t.

Trew was making steady progress and his Glows were getting brighter. Not even close to what the Men on Watch could produce, let alone Ship’s Mate.

Trew wondered if they’d even used an oddment to make their Glows. He thought not. That would be harder still, wouldn’t it? What little facet-work Trew knew required him to touch something.

But Compass Mate had snapped his fingers and made a rope move. That was something else. Trew was excited to learn.

The Men on the main deck slowed in anticipation of dinner.

Mate noticed. “Enough Glow for now. Practice later in your cabins. A little string, one try per facet in your loop.”

Trew nodded, then looked to the line that was almost forming. Everyone seemed hungry today.

“Next topic,” Mate said.

Trew looked attentively at Mate, but his mind currently dwelt in his stomach.

“Have you wound all the clocks?” Mate asked Sprocket.

Trew saw that the idea had never occurred to him. “No.”

“Well, take each one out and wind it.”

“They’re the size of my thumb right now.”

“You could learn how to enlarge and shrink them, if we were that far long in facet-work, but that would damage them if you were clumsy. Best do it while they’re small.”

Sprocket looked baffled.

Mate enjoyed that. He turned to Black. “Have you fed your sparrows?”

Black stuttered back a no.

“I’ve arranged for you to work in the galley every other evening, scullery stuff I’d expect. Use your time there to gather up the turnip peelings and the tops, too, if you can get them. See if you can’t keep the sparrows alive.”

“Do they eat turnip tops?” Black asked.

“No one knows.”

Trew hadn’t seen Black look quite so dejected yet, as if Mate had ordered him to slowly murder each and every sparrow.

“If they don’t fancy turnips, we’ll try something else.”

Black seemed to lighten up after that.

“Maybe pick the goose bits out of your goose stew to feed them. They might prefer meat.”

Black just shook his head.

Mate looked to Trew.

Trew just said, “no,” before he was asked anything.

“Wanted nothing to do with them, did you?” Mate asked.

Trew wanted to agree with him. Instead he said nothing.

“Smart, Boy. Unfortunately for you, I do know how to feed the crickets.”

Red crickets? Maybe they drank blood.

“Yours are the simplest of all.” Mate was drawing this out.

Trew wasn’t going to appreciate the answer.

“There’s a hatch in the top of the box. You open it, you stick your hand inside, and use a gentle Glow for them. Just like you learned today. They prefer something in yellow, red, or orange.”

His hand…inside that box of red crickets. No, no. No.

“They subsist on facet, we think. Won’t eat anything else.”

Trew really did have it the worst.

“For h… how long?” Trew asked.

“Oh, twenty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the evening should do it.”

Mate had been waiting for some time to say those words. He enjoyed ordering someone to touch the crickets for almost an hour every day.

As for Trew, he hadn’t cried since he was very small, but he thought he could be forgiven for crying now.

All three Boys had forgotten their earlier successes with the Glows. Mate did know how to keep them humble.

“Last topic.”

This was the one that would see them kicked off the Fortress, Trew supposed.

“By tomorrow, I want you to know the path we’ve taken to sea. I also want you to know our approximate position — let’s say how far we are from one of the lighthouses. So you need to know which lighthouse and how many nautical miles.”

That was a killer. He knew they’d started in Twobay and sailed past Last Sayle, but after that…

“Can we see a map?” Sprocket asked.

“No.”

“How are we supposed to do this, then?” Sprocket pushed.

“Surprise me,” Mate said. “I expect substantial Glows from all of you by tomorrow morning. Get some more string if you need it. Practice — at least when you’re not trying to figure out our location.”

“Can we work together?” Trew asked.

“No.” Mate smiled when he said that. “Don’t forget your dinner.”

He walked away.

“How do we figure out where we’ve come from or where we are? He won’t even show us the map,” Black said.

Trew was considering the problem. It looked like Sprocket was, too.

“I’ll bet we can’t figure out the tools,” Sprocket said. “Not without his help.”

“I know,” Black said.

“I’ll also bet we don’t have to.”

“So we just guess?” Black asked.

Trew shook his head, but wondered what Sprocket was proposing.

“Is he the only one on the Fortress who knows how to tell our position?”

“No,” Trew said.

Sprocket nodded. “He’s in charge of the compass, but he’s not the only one who knows how to use it.”

Black let out a deep breath. “The Men, some of them might know.”

“Right,” Sprocket said. “The old hands might.”

Trew appreciated the idea. “We each pick a different one, ask nicely.”

“I’d like to compare the different answers to make sure we’re not far wrong tomorrow,” Black said.

Sprocket liked it.

“I’m going to talk to Chesty,” Black said.

“You think that’s a good idea?” Trew asked. “He’s a storyteller, a liar.”

“I don’t know anyone else.” Black walked off for the galley then.

Trew and Sprocket followed behind, but the topic didn’t reemerge then.

They ate together, but quietly. Life on the Fortress had to be different from what all three of them had imagined.

Trew’s eyes were on hard duty taking everything in. Compass Mate was up by the helm with three other mates, one of them Ship’s Mate. Trew hoped he would have the other faces and titles down soon.

All around them, the Men were indulging in their watered gawgrie more than their gruel.

“I’m going to find Chesty…,” Black said.

The dinner hour was still ongoing.

“You want him pleased to help?” Trew asked.

“Aye.” Black had a touch of suspicion in his tone.

“Let him drink in peace.”

“Oh, aye.”

Trew nodded. No one liked an interruption in a moment of happiness. That went doubly so for happiness in liquid form.

“Which one are you taking?” Sprocket asked.

Trew pointed to the Man called Jock.

Sprocket didn’t want to poach that one from Trew, that was clear from his face. “I’m going to pick out someone who doesn’t look so mean.”

“I have an idea,” Trew said. “That one is just right, I think.”

“This whole thing is foxey as a dead fish,” Sprocket said. “I guess I have a few coins I could slip someone.”

“You’re going to pay?”

“Aye. If I need to.”

Trew’s ideas for getting assistance were different from Sprocket’s. Hopefully Sprocket wouldn’t get himself in trouble later on if he was known to have coins on him.

“Do you…”

Trew turned his head and noted someone looming over them.

He stumbled to his feet.

“I’m told you can all make a Glow,” the Commander said.

Every Mate — and now the Commander — could move around noiselessly when they chose. Trew was getting tired of it.

Sprocket and Black got to their feet, too. There was much clattering of wooden bowls and cups.

“Yes, Commander,” he said with Sprocket and Black.

“Let’s see it. The color red, please, in your palms.”

Trew reached for his oddments pocket and a bit of string.

Compass Mate arrived, then. He bore the same red color as a boiled goose. “Ah, Commander. They aren’t doing colors on command yet. Nor without an oddment.”

The Commander’s neck seemed to retract his head back inside his cowl. “I see. Where did you get such a training programme?”

“The book they issued to me at my Shore School,” Compass Mate said.

He’d been in school at the same time Trew, Sprocket, and Black were?

“The training book? Fitche’s Book.” His tone was precisely even, not too curious nor too demanding.

“Aye.”

“I haven’t seen it. Bring it to me.”

Compass Mate disappeared belowdeck.

Those were silent, awkward moments for the Boys. Had they done something wrong? The Commander wasn’t looking at them and he wasn’t talking to them.

When Mate returned, he handed a book to the Commander.

The Commander opened it, and skimmed the words. He flipped pages at a rapid pace before he paused. His head seemed to protrude a little from his improvised cowl.

“Eighteen steps to get a Boy making a Glow?”

“Aye, Commander,” Mate said, becoming a little uneasy.

The Commander flipped more pages. “Swim underwater for five minutes, no breaths, just the use of some facet-work.”

“Aye.”

“Can you do it?”

“It’s a new requirement. I plan to be able to do it.”

The Commander flipped more pages into the book. “‘Demonstrate the workings of a facet cannon by involving the Boys in their operation and upkeep. Step one: assign the Boys to work in the ordinance locker and organize the cannon supplies.’”

“Aye, Commander.”

“Rule one on any ship I command, a Boy does not touch the firing block or any component of it.”

Mate was now fully uneasy. “I hadn’t heard that.”

“What did you say?”

Compass Mate realized his mistake. “Aye, Commander.”

“Correct, Mate, correct. ‘Light a fire in fifteen different ways.’ Fire on a ship is dangerous, Mate.”

“I believe the next requirement is thirty ways to douse a fire,” Mate said, no longer trying to defend the training scheme, just trying to defend himself.

“My favorite might be, ‘Catch a fish.’ That’s impossible in the Sterile Sea, there are none.”

“I know. That’s in a chapter for Real World training.”

“Raef Fitche is many things. Clever is not one of them.” The Commander closed the cover of the training book.

“I trust nothing he puts his name to. Indeed, I have no use for anything Fitche has written.”

While the book rested on the Commander’s open palm, it started on fire, an orange and red flame. He looked at the book until it was ash and cinder in his hand.

“I’ll tell ye how to train the Boys. Don’t need a Captain Fitche to write down lollpoop and idle fodder.”

Mate just stared at the Commander.

“Anyone have a need for perfectly fine ash? Very fresh. No?” He dumped the ash overboard.

Trew didn’t know what to make of all this. The things the Commander had read out sounded ridiculous. He was glad someone was paying attention to what Trew would learn. The Commander, though, seemed a little savage and a lot brutal.

“Today’s effort? Set them to work on their Glows. No strings, colors on demand.”

“Yes, Commander.”

“Tomorrow, you’ll teach them the signals. Not just the emergency signals, as that bit of ash recommended. Teach them everything now so they can begin to use it.”

The Commander moved away and still made no noise. Perhaps he only made that clunk noise when he chose.

“I guess the plan is changed. Be back here in an hour,” Compass Mate said.

He looked a bit shaken to Trew’s eye. Trew almost felt sorry for his having a rough time of it. Almost.

“Why isn't our Commander the Captain?” Sprocket asked. “I can’t think Captain Fitche is…”

Worse, Sprocket didn’t say. That was what Trew assumed.

“He’s hard enough, isn’t he?” Mate asked.

“Aye,” all the Boys said.

“Rumor is that his facets are good for a ship and a cannon. He lives for War. Others have facets better for Peace, for persuasion and lying.”

“Does he care?” Trew asked. “That he's a Commander and not the Captain?”

“Third election he was in. Third time he finished in second place. You want to ask him his feelings?” Mate asked.

Trew wriggled his head as fast as he could.

“My best guess is no. In War, he won't care what his rank is if he can fight. He's the man you want on your cannons.”

Trew wondered what Mate hadn’t said just then. In Peace he was what — not someone you wanted on your ship? Probably true.

“Will he train us?” Black asked. “Or pop up and examine us?”

“I don't expect it.”

So, yes, Trew thought. It was possible, even likely.

“The rumors say you stay away from him. He eats Boys for dinner and Landsmen for supper.”

So the Mates had been trading stories last night, putting together what they knew of their new Master and Commander.

“What about Mates?” Sprocket asked.

Mate shook his head. “Apparently he throws Mates on the fire in his cabin.”

Compass Mate waved off any more questions. “One hour until further Glow training. Work on your navigation problems until then. What path have we taken and where are we now?”

Mate went belowdecks promptly thereafter. He had been well and truly rattled.

XX

Continue to Chapter Eleven.