(As I’ve written earlier the third Gun Kingdoms book is slowly gaining momentum and we’re looking forward to a KickStarter campaign later in the year. In past projects my contribution has been purely visual but this time around Scott has challenged/goaded/double-dog-dared me to do some writing as well. What follows is a story set on the Hammerhead, a submersible boat that figures prominently in the third book.
The color art above will appear on the book’s cover. The sketch at the end of the story is a annotated diagram of the area in where the story takes place.)
(In naval terminology: a shorter than usual (2 hour) period of duty scheduled between the hours of 1600 and 2000 that staggers the watch schedule so the same personnel are not forced to stand mid-watch every night.)
(Time is signaled throughout the vessel by a system of bells: one stroke of the bell indicates the first half hour of a watch, with an additional bell for each succeeding half hour. Eight bells indicate the end of a four-hour watch, and then the bell cycle starts over and repeats itself for the next watch.)
Why didn’t he say anything about the smell?
In the months before embarkation all Uncle Beetlemeyer could talk about was the overwhelming advantage Alyver Gilgamesh would gain by starting his shipboard career as a cadet under the command of his old academy roommate, Dusker Trinidad. So far the only overwhelming aspect of his career was the combined stench of oil, mold, fish and sweat that came into being the minute the hatches clanked shut, and grew in funkiness until the Hammerhead once again broke the surface. Never mind cannon fire or drowning – the real hazard to life in a submersible boat was the ever-present stink that wouldn’t wash out of his clothes, ruined the taste of every meal, and made life more tedious than need be.
Not that life afloat was all that great – Alyver’s first clue that Uncle Beetlemeyer had once again embroidered the truth was the “ix-nay on the oommate-ray” hissed to him when reporting dockside to meet the legendary captain for the first time. It turned out that Beetlemeyer hadn’t actually been Trinidad’s roommate, but rather an upperclassman who’d unmercifully hazed the now-famous privateer during his first year at the academy.
The second clue came when Alyver was given his watch assignment: by title he was assistant to the petty-officer-in-charge of the portside secondary propulsion pod, but in real life he was referred to as Chief Petty Officer Tho’s dog robber, and assigned the dullest and dirtiest tasks, with an occasional respite from drudgery in the form of feeding the department’s canine mascot Nick, or running errands to other parts of the boat. He also seemed to be designated target for the incredibly short temper of the power-pod’s second-in-command, Petty Officer Rudy. The ever-squinting and sporadically articulate Rudy mocked Alyver for his spectacles and denied even the questionable dignity of the title “dog robber” and instead referred to the cadet in third person as “the pimply little snot” with a social standing just below the dog.
Alyver thought “At least he isn’t constantly trying to kick me” then smiled when he remembered that for all his kicking, Rudy had yet to connect with the dog Nick. He smiled even broader when he contemplated the bliss of the next couple of hours free of the customary drudgery while Chief Tho and the others were attending some sort of event with the Capitan Trinidad somewhere astern in the main hull. Alyver wasn’t too sure if it was a dinner, lunch or breakfast – since leaving safe waters, the Hammerhead had surfaced under the cover of darkness only, and that lack of visual reference combined with the as-yet baffling time-keeping system of bells had robbed Alyver of any internal sense of time.
With the others gone he would have to catch up with his cruise-book. In addition to the smell, upended time sense, and taunts from his crew mates, Alyver was dismayed to find that during his first cruise he was expected to learn about the vessel rather than just ride around in it. Every spare moment was to be familiarizing himself about the structure, systems, and operation of the boat, and documenting that knowledge by filling a blank book with carefully annotated notes and diagrams. At first he’d approached the task with indifference, but when Tho shared his own youthful misfortune at confusing a sewage life with a water line (“they’re painted brown for a reason!”) Alyver resumed his study with an increased sense of urgency.
The deck abruptly tilted down towards the bow, startling Alyver until his ears popped and he realized that the boat had just dived a little deeper. He wondered if the dive was a matter of evading patrol boats, and when a loud scraping sound echoed from the port side of the pod he wondered if they’d encountered a minefield or anti-submersible net as well, but when the deck leveled out and the boat kept moving he relaxed and started reading the instructions for the port pod department order book.
At least twice during each period between bells he was to make one complete round of all the watertight compartments in the pod, starting at the main access hatch to the passage leading to the main hull, then:
- Aft to the upper level of the engine room,
- Down to the ladder in the lower engine room,
- Forward to the torpedo room,
- Up the ladder to the observation bay,
- And aft to where he began at the main access.
In addition, there were special areas such as hull sections with recent repairs and boarding pistols clipped to strategic points on the pod bulkheads required additional scrutiny, but it seemed that in making his rounds, updating the departmental log, and reporting by speaking tube to the watch officer there wasn’t anything particularly overwhelming in the standard orders, so he leafed ahead to the special orders section to check for any unpleasant surprises listed there.
Despite being written in Petty Officer Rudy’s near-indecipherable scrawl, the first special notice was clear enough: “All check-valves made by the Gold Turtle Guild is
folti fawldi broke and gots 2 be checkt at evry bell”. What wasn’t made clear was the fact that in the interest of job security the Gold Turtle Guild had designed the check valves so that they could only be tightened or loosened by use of the rather unwieldly Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner…which was longer and heavier than any other implement the pod’s toolkit. The balance of the special orders section – made up of two inch’s worth of stale-dated maintenance notices suggested skimming rather than study, and upon closing the cover, Alyver replaced the book on the shelf next to the speaking tube, then turned aft and started on his first inspection tour through the pod.
The transition from the brilliantly lit access hatch area to the dark and gloomy upper engine room was abrupt enough to stop Alyver in his tracks…or so he thought. As he looked around to try and orient himself he saw that it was in fact the raised edge of the door he had come through that was holding him back. He mentally corrected his lapse in nautical vocabulary as PO Rudy’s screech echoed in his thoughts “IT’S A HATCH NOT A DOOR YOU PITIFUL SANDCRAB!” as he groped for the ladder, but once in the lower level he found the atmosphere not nearly as fetid, and the engine noise reduced. It was even quieter as he moved through the torpedo room, the stillness disturbed slightly by the soft pat-pat-pat as Nick the dog brushed past his leg and bolted past him and up the ladder to the observation bay where he curled up in the gunner’s seat. Alyver lingered at the viewing ports for a moment, relishing the silence as he watched the moonlight flicker through the underside of the waves overhead when:
Even from a dozen yards away the alert whistle on the speaking tube felt like a razor slicing through the side of his head. Alyver smacked his shin against the raised bottom edge of the door (HATCH!) leading into the main compartment as he bolted back through the pod to the handset to the speaking tube, instantly cursing his haste as he was met with a near-indecipherable torrent of words:
Alyver quickly countered with a clever retort “Huh?”
Alyver stared at the handset, which at the moment seemed to be just as effective as putting it to his ear. While Chief Petty Officer Tho was adamant in his belief that the speaking tube was an appropriate means of intra-boat communication, the most Alyver understood from the garbled message was that it concerned his report – that maybe it was late – which he took to be correct when he responded to that effect and receiving in turn a pair of whistle-blasts that the handbook translated as “OVER!”
It was only then that Alyver saw the faint trace of blood seeping through his trousers – those minor collisions with hatch rims hadn’t been so minor so he sat down and tied his handkerchief around his lower leg as a rough bandage. It felt so good to be off his feet that he decided to sit for a few minutes and work on his cruise book, but as he was inking a diagram of the pod’s secondary fuel line, he remembered the special notice in the orders book regarding the check-valves that he’d failed to inspect when he made his rounds. Acting in the calm and professional manner expected of an officer-cadet he panicked and grabbed the special Golden Turtle Guild Hydro-spanner as he bolted through the hatch to the upper engine room. If he worked fast enough he could check all the Golden Turtle Guild check-valves and “revise” the watch-log with a minimum of guilt and maybe even before (Heaven forbid!) a surprise inspection from Chief Petty Officer Tho.
He’d been surprised that Tho had accepted the captain’s invitation; at sea the Chief rarely left the pod, electing to string a hammock up in the observation compartment rather than bunking down in the main hull in the marginally larger space appropriate to his rank. He was rough mannered, profane, and thoroughly imbued with the cynicism expected in a combat veteran, but while he routinely swore that he “ate cadets for breakfast”, every order and correction Tho made came with a bit of instruction hidden amongst the pejoratives, and the Chief always stepped in when PO Rudy’s comments became too acidic. In was only then as Alyver was struggling to maneuver the hydro-spanner around in the cramped and dimly lit compartment that he realized Tho wasn’t the ogre he’d always thought him to be.
In fact, Alyver was thinking that a surprise visit wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all because it was getting kind of scary. Other than the hopelessly garbled call over the speaking tube there’d been no contact with anyone, not even idlers out in the passageway to the main hull. Other than the dog, it was like there was no one else on board, the smell seemed to be getting even worse and this check-valve problem was turning into a much more serious task than anyone imagined.
“Golden Turtle Guild?” Alyver thought. “More like Golden Turd Guild if you ask me!”
The sentiment was proved all too true as more than half of the accursed check valves were found to be defective, with those on the pod ballast lines damaged to point beyond the reach of the gentle ministrations of the hydro-spanner. A growing puddle of water on the lower engine room deck indicated that the ballast-line problem was a potential boat-killer requiring notification of the watch officer, but armed with that bullet-proof mindset endemic to adolescent males, Cadet Alyver Gilgamesh decided to handle the problem on his own.
He’d get a bigger wrench.
The hydro-spanner was already the largest wrench available, so he’d have to resort to a “cheat bar” – a long piece of pipe slipped over the spanner’s handle that increased the levering action and tighten the check-valve even more securely than before. Granted, they’d be so cinched up it would take portside with power-tools or an enchantment to remove them, but it seemed to be a reasonable trade-off. He slipped the pipe over the spanner handle and muscled the jaws of the wrench into place, then stepped back, reached up for the pipe, and started pulling, bouncing a bit to add his body weight to the force of the wrench.
“Yes!” he hissed to himself “Yes – these fittings will definitely hold until we get back to port for permanent repairs! What do you say now Petty Officer Rudy? Mr. Hatchet Face? What will you say when the little pimply cadet saves the boat! Maybe Captain Trinidad will–”
The whole world suddenly went black.
Utter blackness slowly coalesced into the dim illumination of the engine room as Alyver regained consciousness. Pain radiated from both the crown of his head and his shin and the slightest effort to sit up was met with a wave of nausea. His hand came away bloody as he reached up to lightly check his head and silently debated the risks of walking with a possible skull fracture against the royal ass-chewing he’d get for leaving his post unattended.
Alyver jackknifed to a sitting position at the shock of an unexpected voice from so close by but as he held a handkerchief to throbbing head he was unable to find the…
“Rmm-blee!! The soft voice was concerned but insistent.
He could see no one else in the compartment or through the hatch into the torpedo room. He briefly considered, then discarded, the speaking tube as a possibility reasoning that the message had been far too articulate to have come through that apparatus. It was only then that Alyver looked down to find Nick the Terrier looking up at him with far more understanding than he thought possible.
“You can talk! Why have you never talked to me before?”
“Roo ne’er ast!”
Alyver had read about familiars – four-footed animals that could think and talk, but he’d ever actually seen one, and the thrill of this new experience was as pleasing as the thought of –
Whatever injury he’d sustained to his head made the high-pitched alert whistle on the speaking tube even more painful to Alyver’s ears, but he raced up the ladder, then once again picked up the handset to deal with the tsunami of gibberish:
Alyver silently mouthed a curse while wondering why he could never understand a message the first time it was given and asked that the message be given again.
No mistaking that message – there was some sort of hazard to the submersible requiring all watertight hatches to be closed and while Alyver still had the freedom to move around in the pod, the big access hatch to the main hull was to be secured until further notice. As he had no idea what that threat might be it seemed prudent to make another round of checks and inspections with Nick alternately walking ahead and beside him while delivering a mostly understandable commentary. As they walked Alyver learned that ““Rmm-blee!! was Nick’s attempt at reproducing PO Rudy’s “Pimply” which he’d assumed was Alyver’s name just as he assumed his own name to be “Dammutt”. Alyver also learned that Nick’s true canine name was “One Who Stealthily Moves through the Night” which the rest of his pack had shortened to “Sneaker”.
The water was even deeper and the smell even worse when they climbed down to the site of his accident. It took several minutes of groping around in the dark to find both the hydro spanner and cheat bar and it took only a cursory glance at them and the valve they’d been used on to determine the cause of his injury: himself. As CPO Tho so bluntly put it, “Tools are designed for a specific use and any idiot using them another way is flirting with the undertaker.” When Alyver bounced his full weight on the cheat bar the hydro spanner bar slipped off the overly-tightened check valve and the tool and cheat-bar together came down on his head knocking him cold. That explained the headache, but not the wound on his shin which was bleeding much more than expected for a simple bump on a hatch rim.
As Alyver bent down to further examine his injury, a series of sharp yaps drew his attention from the lower engine spaces to the torpedo room, but his way through the hatch was blocked by an extremely agitated Sneaker crouching in full hunting stance, his stare fixed at what looked to be a pile of thicker-than-usual washers clustered around a waste disposal portal recessed into the torpedo room floor. As Alyver pushed himself past the full-arched Sneaker he heard the small dog growl an almost understandable warning, then was startled when one of the washers flipped up to a vertical stance and in three bounces flashed past Alyver’s left arm leaving a long, almost surgical slice in his bicep before slapping into the hull way behind him.
There was inexplicably no pain, but knowing that shock was soon to follow, the cadet scooped up the small dog and bolted back into the engine room space, slamming and securing the hatch behind him. Though shock was starting to set in, he managed to make his way to an aid locker and bandages before the nausea robbed him of his footing and he sat down heaving on the deck chanting the mantras and words of power his Nana had taught him that would hopefully allow his thoughts to blunt the pain that was just now starting to manifest. Then on his third time through the chant he was interrupted by Sneaker dropping a small circular object on the deck in front him and announced “Roo-bee”
In reflex, Alyver reached for the palm-sized disc only to have Sneaker bat his hand way while stridently repeating the warning “ROO-BEE!”. The oversized washer glittered in the dim lighting, and just as it flopped in a disturbingly fish-like manner it dawned on him that with Sneaker’s vocal limitations, “Roo-bee” was the closest he could get to “Loopie” and another wave of nausea crashed over him. As he sat back, he wasn’t sure if the resultant dizziness stemmed from the injury or the realization of the dire situation he was in.
He was in big trouble.
As the bells echoed down from the main cabin Alyver took stock of his situation: The pod was being overrun by “Loopies” – more properly Petits Loups de la Mer or “little wolves of the sea” Alyver shuddered – he’d heard equally valid arguments declaring them to be mammal, fish, reptile, plants, mechanical device, or thaumaturgical construct, and as he looked at the now-dead example on the deck, he could see aspects of each category, but it was the teeth that commanded his attention. Rather than the dull yellow of most fangs in nature they were a metallic gray like a surgeon’s scalpel or a craftsman’s chisel – and there were so many for such a small creature. Alyver was surprised not by their appearance but by the fact that the wound on his arm was so slight given the razor sharpness of the loopy’s fangs. The similarity of the two wounds led to the conclusion that the scent of blood from the gash on his lower leg must have drawn a loopy to the wound while he’d been unconscious earlier.
The solution to that mystery led to another being solved – the diminutive creature stank with an overpowering stench that seemed to combine the worst aspects of sour milk and rotten fish. Unfortunately he was still faced with a third, as in how had they managed to get on board? It wasn’t like the case with rats – an infestation of loopies was a threat grave enough to require preventative measures far in excess of those meant to eliminate expected vermin like rodents, but then given their curious bounding/rolling method of locomotion It was doubtful a loopie could have successfully moved across the mooring lines the way rats did. The answer came only when he was able to examine at length the pile of “washers” thorough an inspection port set in the hatch he just closed
They’d gained entrance to the pod through a damaged waste disposal portal. Normally the portal worked like a miniature airlock with one of its two covers closed when the other was open, but it looked like the outer door had been sheared off by whatever had earlier made the loud scraping sound along the port side of the pod. The inner door also seemed damaged which meant only air pressure was keeping the seawater from flooding the pod.
Another wave of nausea swept over Alyver and he sat down and adjusted his bandage while wondering aloud: “A flood of loopies? What is the proper collective term for them? There’s a pod of whales and a murder of crows – what do you call a large group of loopies?”
He jerked awake at the unexpected voice “WHAT? WHO? WHO’S THERE?”
A brush of bristly fur on his right arm accompanied the soft humming voice as Sneaker elaborated” “Zylumm of roo-bees” but Alyver’s slight smile of amusement at the aptness at “an asylum of loopies” faded when the feline continued” ‘Rig trumles Rim-bee. Many, many roo-bees. Alpha roo-bee. Roo-bee go in all sip.”
Sneaker was right. When rest of the pod crew returned in a half hour there’d be so many loopies that Tho and the crew would be completely overwhelmed when the main hatch opened. Alyver gulped as he realized that the entire boat would be flooded with the bouncing slashing disc creatures so they had to be contained in the lower pod even if it was just a wounded cadet and a “damn mutt” doing the containing. Fortunately it appeared that the loopies were concentrated in the torpedo room with the aft hatch secured, but the forward hatch leading up into the observation bay was still open.
It all came down to a race up the ladder and forward to the hatch in the gunner’s cabin, a task that mysteriously seemed to be extremely difficult until Alyver realized in his third unsuccessful attempt to transit the a hatch that in his panic he was still tightly clutching the hydro spanner horizontally at his waist. As he entered the main cabin a squelching sound drew his attention to the forward end of the pod as an “asylum of loopies” boiled up through the hatch in the observation bay floor. Their collective bouncing was almost hypnotic, and while there was no telling how many of the disc-creatures were pouring into the damaged waste portal, all the motion made them seem much more numerous than could possibly be dealt with, but as he tentatively stepped towards them, the speaking tube alert whistle shrieked:
Alyver grabbed at the speaking tube handset, the hydro spanner clattering to the deck in the process.
The hatch! God bless us all – in a flash he remembered he’d earlier secured the main access hatch on the order of the watch officer so the immediate threat to the rest of the boat was contained – and given the lethal efficiency with which Nick/Sneaker was dispatching the squirming mass of disc creatures slowly squirming toward him it seemed that the integrity of the power pod would be shortly just as secure. He was also able to smash a number of them himself now that he was in full light and could dodge the slashing attacks that came at him in predictable arcs. His heavy work boots made short work of stomping the loopies flat, but when the attacks momentarily slowed he turned to unclip a boarding pistol from its mount as added insurance.
…but when he turned back to face the menace he saw what he could only guess to be the alpha-loopie squeezing up through the hatch. Any doubts as to the thatamurgical origin of the loopies was instantly dispelled by the decidedly unnatural appearance of this newest threat. It was circular in the same manner but much larger – the size of a true wolf and while it was also circular it moved in a horizontal rather than vertical manner. Alyver had never seen anything like it and the lack eyes, ears or mouth made a mystery of its basic existence much less the manner in which the mass of bristles, teeth, tentacles and talons slowly spun towards him.
All doubts of magical influence vanished when the single shot he was able to make with the boarding pistol flattened onto a purplish hemispherical shimmer that appeared at arm’s length from the creature. He frantically fumbled for a second cartridge but then the speaking tube whistle shrieked again.
Alyver instinctively reached for the handset, but just as he picked it up a talon-tipped tentacle flashed past him and added a second slice to the one on his left bicep.
“SOD THIS DAMN THING”
“SCREW THE SPEAKING TUBE! TO HELL WITH THAT DAMN HATCH” he screamed as he threw down the handset and turned towards his attacker, stumbling over the hydro spanner in the process. He’d had enough. In a flash he snatched up the hydro spanner and lunged toward the spinning nightmare, screaming every curse, oath and mantra he’d heard in his fifteen short years as he swung the heavy implement down, expecting it to be deflected by the same purple shimmer that stopped the bullet.
The spinning disc of tentacles and talons jerked to a stop with that first blow. Whether it was for “insurance” or to work out the tension, Alyver followed up with three more blows that started with a thunk and ended with a squish.
That final thunk was echoed with a corresponding thunk as the main hatch finally opened. Petty Officer Rudy entered the main cabin, loudly condemning the increased stench to “the pimply-faced cadet’s farts”, but as Tho and the rest of the pod crew filed through and saw the smashed remains the chief petty officer waved his second mate to silence.
Tho nudged the carcass of the alpha-loopie with the toe of his boot and said “, looking at them now they don’t seem like much but they can overrun a vessel in a flash. Happened on the first submersible I signed on with as a boy. Only three of us survived” He turned to Alyver and continued: “Sealing the pod off like that saved the whole boat. You might make a decent sub-mariner yet,” then waved in a sick-bay attendant to see to Alyver’s wounds.
Alyver assumed it was just a form of bedside manner when the medic cheerily prattled on as he went about dressing wounds, but it was also obvious he was gathering information for Chief Tho. The mystery of the killing blow with the hydro spanner was solved when he Alyver recalled the string of invectives he screamed as he made the killing blow. It turned out that the sick-bay attendant’s interest into things magical was just as intense as that of the cadet’s grandmother – included in the stream of epithets Alyver had let fly was a verse very similar enough to an incantation of a nullification that weakened the purple shimmer just enough for the hydro spanner to work its own type of magic.
A tot of rum from the sick-bay attendant took the edge off the pain and he sat back against the bulkhead feeling dreamingly warm. Nick/Sneaker was lying next to him on the deck, but when he tilted his head down to speak, the dog shook his head in a disturbingly human manner and the cadet assumed that a talking dog was not common knowledge to the crew. With thoughts of a possible second tot Alyver turned back to the medic, but then a deep rumble not immediately identifiable as someone clearing their throat brought his attention to the front again to see Chief Petty Officer Tho towering before him.
“A cadet that can handle a grave situation as well you did is capable of doing much more than polishing the brass work and looking after the dog. After you’ve spent some time on the mend we’ll see about training you for other more important duties–“
“…such as proper terminology when using the speaking tube.”