First Watch (20:00 to 24:00)

(Second in a series of short stories tied in with the upcoming Gun Kingdoms III book. Picks up directly after the events in my previous story Dog Watch)

“Now this is going to hurt you more than it will hurt me.”

The young man sitting on the examination table visibly blanched, and a shudder rippled through his body from the end of his ponytail to the soles of his feet.

“Not to worry cadet. Just a bit of sick bay humor”, continued the doctor, mentally cursing his feeble attempt at bedside manner. Holding the torn fabric back with his mid-arms, the doctor stitched the wound while applying a balm with his upper set, all the while continuing with his commentary, “For as much as they smell, loopies leave fairly clean wounds. Keep the stitches sanitized and make good use of the healing potion I’ve given you and the rot won’t set in”.

The young cadet stood up, straightened his spectacles for the umpteenth time, and then left the sick bay, a subdued “Thanks” trailing behind him. The four-armed doctor then turned his attention to cleaning up the detritus left from treatment, putting implements and medicines away with his upper arms while mid-arms swabbed down the examination table and laid out new linens. “So young”, he thought. “The cadets we get now seem to be little more than children. Was I ever as green as young Mr. Gilgamesh?”

He continued to wipe down and restock the containers and bottles scattered around the compartment, pausing only when a low rumble from somewhere further aft in the boat shook the sick-bay slightly. Before treating the young cadet’s wound he’d been swamped with several senior petty officers suffering from what seemed to be food poisoning after dining with the Captain. It had been a special occasion, and judging from the brilliantly-colored but evil-smelling liquid splattered on the deck, the cook had apparently taken a chance with a rather exotic dish for the festivities. Fortunately only selected members of the crew had attended the banquet and sampled the exotic cuisine, and so far there had been no gastric complaints outside of that group.

With the compartment clean, the doctor sat back down, and his thoughts returned again to the young cadet.

“So young…”

Nana had always loudly maintained that his peculiar anatomy was a blessing from heaven, but Trevor Norridgewock considered his extra arms a curse. The valley was blessedly free from the bigotry and insults that plagued those with physical differences in other places and times, but there were constant subtle reminders that others viewed him less favorably. It had started early on when classmates complained that his extra appendages gave him an unfair advantage on the playing field, and clerks never shifted their gaze from him when he went shopping, some of them confessing later that they wondered if his mid-arms were pocketing goods while his upper arms were involved in a transaction. Most distressing was when his invitation to the cotillion was rejected with, “It’s hard enough watching where two hands are drifting during a dance, much less contend with four”, so his early departure to the academy came as a blessing rather than a sad development in his life.

At first, attitudes outside of the valley were different enough for him to wonder if he’d been overly sensitive when younger, but despite the lack of open prejudice he couldn’t help but notice the slight hesitations and diverted glances that came with every social interaction, so it was just easier to avoid the parties and concerts that came with academy life. As it was, the isolation was actually a blessing as it allowed him to concentrate on his studies, but upon graduation a career at sea seemed the best choice given the limited social interaction in a ship’s company.

His reverie was broken by the bustle of a burly master-at-arms supervising two crewman as they man-handled a crumpled and broken figure through the hatch and up onto the examination table. This definitely was not another case of food poisoning – Trevor recognized the man as Boothroyd, a crewman assigned to monitor a cargo compartment just down the passageway, and he was bruised, broken, and definitely quite dead in a manner that suggested attack by a small kraken or large bear. The doctor recognized the master-at-arms as Petty Officer Calderoni, and while one of his men placed Boothroyd’s effects on the table, Calderoni informed the doctor that they’d found him buried underneath a mountain of sacks of mealy-corn in the port cargo hold while making their rounds.

As the doctor wrote his report, Calderoni rifled through the dead man’s effects and held up a sheathed knife. “He was one for always talking about his knife and what a fine edge there was on the blade,” he said softly. He sheathed the blade and continued, “Cleaning and oiling it every time he used it. Going on about how his blade put your scalpels to shame”. Trevor smiled slightly sideways as he went about examining the body. How could such a powerful man be so soft spoken and easy going? Scuttlebutt had it that Calderoni could lift a tusker in each hand for exercise, common wisdom second only to the “Can animals talk?” rumor, but for now the doctor was just glad Calderoni was easy-going and considered the doctor to be a friend.

A conference with Captain Trinidad via speaking tube followed the examination, and after a brief discussion, Trevor was designated as the investigating officer in the matter of Boothroyd’s death. Within minutes he was standing in the port cargo compartment’s hatchway silently taking in the scene: the space was not much larger than his sickbay, and other than a lamp mounted on the bulkhead next to the hatch, unlit. The only bare spot on the deck was where the unfortunate crewman had lain, the deck being otherwise covered with the toppled sacks along with scattered mealy-corn kernels from a single torn bag.

The doctor felt a slight pressure against the side of his leg as he studied the room, and looked down to see Nick the dog standing next to him, equally engrossed in the scene. When a quick glance confirmed they were alone, Trevor reached down to the terrier with a mid-hand and scratched the dog’s head while asking, “Do you know anything about this?”

After a brief spasm of reflexive leg-kicking Nick replied in his fractured canine patois, “’s hard to say. Boof-roy and Toe-leo fought sometime. Both liked the same bitsss.”

Trevor sniffed then replied, “First off: we’ve already discussed this Nick. Two-legs don’t use that word for females – at least polite two-legs. Second: I’d heard about disagreements between the two but nothing serious enough for murder”. He paused to pick up the empty mealy bag with an upper hand while continuing to scratch Nick between the ears with a mid. He sniffed again then continued, “Where is Toadleo’s duty station?”

The terrier pointed his nose at the back bulkhead and simply replied “De udder one”, indicating the cargo compartment on the other side of the back bulkhead. After scooping up Nick in his mid-arms and the torn sack in an upper hand, Trevor walked back to the sick bay to drop Nick off before walking around to the starboard main corridor and the storage space that mirrored the compartment where the death occurred. Inside the space he found Calderoni with his two assistants flanking a visibly distraught Toadleo.

As the doctor entered through the hatch Calderoni nodded, and then with a slight smile said, “The captain told me you were the investigating officer but I think this will be an easy one. Boothroyd and Toadleo both fancied the same bargirl back in port. I think Boothroyd was making headway and it looks like Toadleo wanted no rivals for the lass.” He pointed up to a small open hatch at the top of the bulkhead separating the two cargo spaces. “Judging from appearances and the loud sound we all heard earlier it appears that Toadleo climbed up the stacks in here, reached through the emergency hatch to the other hold, and pushed the mealy-corn bags down on Boothroyd.”

Toadleo’s swarthy and dark-haired appearance betrayed his South Coast Arcansi origins but now his face was deathly pale and he was breathing in short gasps. “I never done it. Never. Boothroyd and I had our differences but we’s still shipmates. I traded fists wif him but murder? Never! ‘Sides, Mitzi made ‘er choice and there was no more trouble ‘tween us.”

Trevor and Calderoni turned away for a brief conference, then Toadleo was led off to the brig while the doctor returned to the sickbay where a long line of green-faced crewmen waited in the passageway outside. Whatever had contaminated the captain’s banquet had now made its way into the general ship’s mess and inflicted a good part of the crew, but before he saw the first man in line, the deck started to tilt and the speaking tube whistled. With so many sick the captain had taken the Hammerhead up to cruise on the surface until enough hands recovered to safely submerge again. At the same time, in an effort to forestall losing any more crewman to the mysterious illness, the cook was issuing sausage and cheese in lieu of a hot meal.

After working through the waiting line the doctor removed his coat and sat down to eat, but after treating the largish group of dyspeptic mariners, Trevor was unable to gag down either comestible. As emergency rations, they’d been in storage for quite a while, and after slicing into both of them he found the cheese to be moldy and the sausage rancid. Cleaning his utensils got him to wondering if the grease from the sausage would make a good lubricant or rust-preventative, a thought that caused him to pause and reach for the torn mealy-corn sack, but he stopped short when a half-heard whisper echoed in from the passageway.

“Betcha hexaminin’ Petty Officer Rose wit four hands is fun!” Trevor looked up to see the master-at-arms literally filling the hatchway, his face cocked in the ever-present half-smile. The doctor wondered if Calderoni was smiling at his underling’s attempt at humor before reasoning that a man who can straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands could smile any time he wanted to.

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

The speaking tube whistle preempted any conversation, and the doctor was surprised to hear the captain’s voice inform him that Toadleo had escaped. While being escorted to the brig he’d taken advantage of an unsecured hatch to stun his escort and exit to the main deck. On his way out he’d grabbed a boarding pistol clipped next to the hatch, and had taken cover in the captain’s gig secured in a recess on the main deck. Searchlights on the conning tower could keep the area illuminated but the vents, davits, and stanchions littering the deck cast long shadows that made the crouching Toadleo difficult to observe.

Trevor stood up and put his jacket back on, an otherwise simple task complicated by the need to get four arms into twisted sleeves instead of two. As he stepped out of the sick-bay he paused for a moment and addressed the whispering deck hand, “For your information, Petty Officer Rose is the captain’s best diver, and I’d no sooner take liberties with her as I would you”, before heading toward the hatch and leaving the crewman to wonder how additional arms enhanced one’s hearing.

The doctor followed Calderoni to the portside conning tower hatch where his assistants were keeping watch on Toadleo in a textbook example of a standoff. The boat was cruising in less-than-friendly-waters, but between the need to vent the cloying odor of projectile-vomit, and repairs needed on damaged hull plates, submerging the Hammerhead was not an option. Neither was rushing the escapee; while the large-caliber boarding pistol fired only single-shots, Toadleo could fire and reload three times before they could get to him, and as most of the crew were still immobilized with food poisoning, the task would have to be accomplished with just the small group gathered at the hatch.

Holding up a pink envelope Calderoni quipped, “I could always disguise myself as a letter-carrier and jump him when I deliver this!” A faint trace of perfume followed the packet as he handed it to the doctor. Somehow Nick had gotten ahold of the letter and brought it to the Master-at-arms, and as Trevor scratched the terrier’s ears with a mid-hand he held the envelope in an upper and read the writing on the cover. The doctor’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the address, then he briefly knelt down, whispered something to the dog, and abruptly stepped out of the hatch into full view of the escapee.

“Are you daft doc? He’s a desperate man! He’ll shoot you down just like he killed Boothroyd!”

“No he won’t – because he’s not a murderer!”

Trevor slowly walked toward the gig, stumbling slightly when the big boarding pistol roared and clipped a neat hole into the air intake he just passed. He paused to think, “If they ever develop a metal that can hold up as a repeater for a caliber that big my job will get much busier.” He then walked a few more steps before halting a dozen yards from the crouching escapee.

“Not one step closer Doc. I’ll put an ‘ole in you in a ‘eartbeat.”

“No you won’t Toadleo. You may be a brigand but you’re not a murderer.”

The seaman’s laugh was more like a bark. “Ha! Duhn’t matter. Theys think I am. Remember? I’m a South-Coaster. We carry knives! We steal sweets from toddlers and fart in airlocks, so ‘course I’da killed ‘im.”

Trevor’s reply was equally terse as he imperceptibly eased closer, “…and I’m a four-armed freak. A natural pickpocket that no proper lady should be seen with. We both know those stereotypes aren’t true, just as we both know that you didn’t kill Boothroyd. But if you try to fight your way out you’ll just reinforce every lie that’s been told about you, me, and every other person who looks a little bit different.”

“How do you know I didn’t kill Boothroyd? I’m a pirate remember? Uh…Arrgh…Rawor! I’m a mean one I am!”

“Nick is a more convincing brigand that you are.” The doctor held up the pink envelope. “This is why I know you didn’t kill Boothroyd.”

From their vantage point Calderoni and his party flinched as the doctor walked closer to the escapee, only to be amazed when Toadleo stood up from his cover and handed him the boarding pistol before walking with the doctor back to the open hatch. Trevor then made a most contradictory announcement that a) Toadleo would return to the brig without any more trouble and b) Toadleo would shortly be absolved of all charges. The announcement came with a most nerve-wracking silence – the doctor had never seen the massive petty officer so keyed up, and for a moment Trevor feared the tension built up during the stand-off would explode into violence, but after repeating the promise that Toadleo would be compliant the tension quickly dissipated. As his two assistants led the escapee aft to the brig, Calderoni followed the doctor to the sick-bay where two shots of medicinal brandy relaxed him enough to sit still for the doctor’s explanation.

“I had my suspicions when I checked the two cargo spaces. The only thing out-of-the-ordinary in the port space was the one torn mealie-corn sack, and the bags in the starboard space were stacked far too neatly – anyone climbing up to the emergency hatch would have made a shambles of the uniform stacking.”

“Toadleo coulda restacked ‘em!”

Trevor held up his hand, “There wasn’t enough time between the sacks falling and apprehending Toadleo”. He then stood up and reached for Boothroyd’s knife while holding the torn mealy-corn sack in his mid-hands. “Neatly stacked cargo isn’t the only factor to consider. This greasy cloth tells the rest of the story.”

“Like all the other crewmembers who avoided food poisoning Boothroyd was issued cheese and sausage from the emergency rations. Both items were issued in bulk form and had to be cut into manageable lengths. Again – like most crewmen, Boothroyd carried a knife. A rather handsome one to be honest, and one that he took great pride in maintaining. As I discovered during my own dinner, cutting the sausage would have left a lot of grease on that blade, and Boothroyd would have lost no time in cleaning his knife…”

Trevor held up the torn sack. “…using the only cloth available. It appears that in order to clean the knife he wiped the blade along the side of the sack, accidentally cutting into the fabric as he did so. Sitting under the not-inconsiderable weight of all the other sacks it was only a matter of time before the cut-bag burst and toppled the entire stack.”

“…and crushed poor Boothroyd in the process”, finished the Master-at-arms. “But there’s still the brawl in the tavern. Couldn’t he…”

Trevor raised both upper hands again. “If you still have doubts, take a look at the pink envelope. It’s from the young lady in question and it’s addressed to Toadleo. Judging by the copious amount of cologne it’s been bathed in I am forced to conclude he had already won that earlier battle for her affections.”

“Why fight a battle you could lose when you’ve already won the war?”

______________________________________________________

Midnight came fairly quickly and Trevor was still completing his log when the eight bells signaling the change in watch-keeping rang. Judging by the reduction in retching and frantic trips to the head it appeared that the food poisoning had run its course, so it seemed safe enough retire. He closed his journal, locked the supply cabinet, and started to head for the corridor and his own cramped quarters.

As he turned to the hatch he stopped short when he spied a small furry head leaning in over the threshold. Trevor knelt down and once again scratched the terrier between his ears, then asked, “Does everyone know you can talk? I thought I was the only one.”

“Dere’s a couple more.”

“When did you get that envelope? How did you get that envelope?”

“Not so many sick now.” Nick neatly sidestepped the question. He continued, “But Rudy wiw stiw bwame ‘is farts on me!”

and they’ll still call me a four-armed freak, but we can let the mid-watch handle it!”

Gun Kingdoms: Dog Watch

(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.)

DOG WATCH

(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.)

BONG

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:

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

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:

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-report-ubba-wubba!”

Alyver quickly countered with a clever retort “Huh?”

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-REPORT-ubba-wubba!”

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.

BONG-BONG

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.

“Rmm-blee!

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.

“Rmm-blee!!

“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 –

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

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:

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-ecure-ubba-wubba!”

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.

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-SECURE- -hurgle-bargle-stupid-cadet-ubba-wubba!”

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.

BONG-BONG-BONG

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?”

“zylumm”

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:

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

Alyver grabbed at the speaking tube handset, the hydro spanner clattering to the deck in the process.

“Ummiffi-wubba-wubba-hurgle-aargle-bargle-murmur-ubba-hatch-ubba-wubba!”

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.

WWWWFFFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTT!

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.

No shimmer.

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.”

BONG-BONG-BONG-BONG

Printed Versions…

GunKingdomPrintedVersion 2012-04-02 Gun Kingdom Cover Illustration

It’s always a little disconcerting to see what happens to your work when it finally gets to print. In this case it’s the cover to the first GunKingdoms book that I worked on with Scott Taylor ; I was so excited with the composition and the way the gradiated color in the circular graphic device played against the overall stark white background, and how the smooth texture of both background and circle set up the detail of the figures quite nicely.

…all of which was knocked (bleep) over teakettle in the printed version, and of course as the artist I was just sure that all that extra detail surrounding my figures was a distraction at best.

Seven years later I am still mentally kicking the two images back and forth. Words and pictures will forever be competing for centerstage and both Scott’s name and the title wouldn’t near so dynamic were it not for Jeff Laubenstein’s embellishments…but that plain white background looked soooo nice.

Fae Dragoon

2017-08-03 Fae Dragoon

There were times when working as a professional in the adventure/RPG market put me at a disadvantage as a player. I was so involved with producing art for product lines like Traveller, Space:1889 and Battletech that I missed out on other  games I would have like to play – or just read about. One of those was Spelljammer, a game line I still know very little about other than it was a TSR product and concerned  a lower-tech level civilization  with space ships that relied heavily on magic use.

…so my interest was definitely piqued when my son Conrad approached me in  the late 1990s  about “conjuring up” visuals for such a setting – for characters he called Fae Troopers. One of the images has seen a lot of use on my rate card for marker renderings but for the most part they just help fill up sketchbooks. Today’s drawing is my version of one of those troopers that moves via horseback…or perhaps more accurately Uintahtherium-back

David's Rate Card

To Slink or Not To Slink

Earlier in my career the female face and figure was not my forte – I was much more comfortable drawing guys and even more comfortable and adept at drawing vehicles and hardware than either gender.  All that changed in my mid-to-late thirties, which I attribute to living with my beautiful Saxon Princess – inspiration like that couldn’t help but improve those skills.

So here is the dilemma: do I always want to draw my female characters as beauty queens  – or as we refer to them in the studio “slinky women”? One school of thought pushes for a wider range of faces and figures or as one former student said ‘Women that don’t look like they have “Mattel” stamped on their a**”… but every time  I tone down the glitz I get negative feedback from somewhere.

Up to this point as I have been working on the Gun Kingdoms 3 I’ve following the “slinky women edict” but for this figure I went with someone more true-to-life. Actually, she is based on a real person – a teacher from my high school. I didn’t have much in the way of reference ( just an old yearbook picture) but I think I captured the basic look. She’s wearing a diving suit so there were plenty of ways I could have vamped her up but I kept everything fairly utilitarian.

2016-05-03 GK Diving Suit

Gun Kingdoms 3: Dusker Trinidad

2016-04-04 Dusker Trinidad

This was an unmitigated knee-jerk reaction to the name Scott came up with for our villain. The first time I saw the name”Dusker Trinidad” in written form I had to stop and say it aloud to myself – I immediately envisioned a large islander much like Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”).  Try as I might I cannot see him as ‘SsCaArRyY! but neither do I see him as a particularly benign person. Amoral and hedonistic but not a jerk about it.

He reminds me of an Islander friend named Jim that I knew at Ricks College .  Jim was a service brat just like I was which meant that it was no surprise that we ended up enrolled ROTC together. Towards the end of that semester I went through a very unhappy upset and when Jim found out about he simply asked if I wanted him to find the other guy and “mess him up”.  No emotional heat involved but rather accomplishing a task for a friend and I am glad that I passed on the offer because

  •  the other guy eventually became a good friend and
  •  I swear I saw Jim drive a nail with this fist one time.

If I get too detailed or mission specific with these designs it often robs the character of…well >character< so with this rendering I stressed the “pirate” part of “submarine pirate captain”. Bits and pieces of his clothing deliberately resemble the uniform Skylla started wearing in “Airship of Fools”; I did that to build in a little ambiguity that Scott can pick up and run with if he so desires. I also have on my check-list one of his crew-members garbed in gear more fitted to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or “Das Boot”.

…and as for the pose? Long story involving a very funny story about The Avengers movie and the way Black Widow as posed versus the way the guys were posed.

Gun Kingdoms 3: Doc Rose

2016-04-03 Doc Rose

Authors talk often about characters writing themselves – and sometimes it happens for artists as well. It happens most often to people working in abstract when a happy accident inspires  different directions with color and composition but sometimes we crass, commercial illustrators are bitten by the bug as well.

As I started to sketch out the basic drawing for the Sand Tyger’s ship’s surgeon I experimented with several stances and as I was shuffling around the various sheets of tracing paper a few of them were superimposed for a couple of seconds, giving the illusion of multiple limbs.  It was electrifying and illuminating at the same time.

  • Doc has yet to be pictured or described in the two Gun Kingdom’s books.
  • A multi-limbed doctor would be extremely effective.
  • Who knows what path evolution would take in a mage-punk/steam-punk/fantasy setting?

My only question is how Scott is going to be able to write this….and yes, you have seen the little insignia on his suit coat pocket if you’ve followed my work. It’s been a long time since you have seen it though.

 

Gun Kingdoms 3: Brandon “Bear” McCoy

2016-04-01 Ship's Technician )  Brandon Bear McCoye i

Sometimes there is nothing as good as black line on white paper and as I get older it seems I like that basic art even more. Maybe its a “getting back to my roots thing” – I certainly used up a couple of tree’s worth of paper sprawled on the floor of my attic loft churning out drawings all the way through high school.

This young man is the artificer/fitter for all the non-magical equipment on the Sand Tyger which makes him fairly important. He also goes unnoticed most of the time – until something breaks down – but he is important nonetheless.

That’s just as well as he is named for a very important person to me. Brandon McCoy was a real-life adventurer and  fallen soldier. Brandon was my next-door neighbor / foster-nephew  for a couple of years  we watched him deploy a couple of times, then watched him re-deploy and try to cope with PTSD and a host of other issues.  Brandon was not as fortunate as others and the dragons got the best of him.  His wife and daughters still grieve, as do we.

I’m long past the time for wearing helmets and carrying rifles but the bond is still there.

Gun Kingdoms 3: Gunner’s Mate Tourmier

2016-03-05 Gunnery Officer Tourmier

…at least I think it should be spelled that way. Scott’s original spelling was “Tormay” but as the gentleman in question claims Gallic ancestry there should be at least an attempt to “French-ify” the spelling.

It’s probably the most honest self-portrait I have ever attempted. As with any character I design there is a back story for  both clothing and equipment. That’s why his cane looks a little more involved that most sticks people on. It’s actually a split image range finder; by looking through the handle and adjusting the knobs he can estimate range-to-target and get the Sand Tyger’s guns rapidly laid on target. His side-arm is actually a flare gun, used for marking and signaling….though I do believe he also carries a few “OO” (double-ought buck-shot) rounds  for repelling boarders.

He has my facial scar and beard…and my “fire hydrant” physique. Illustrating advanced rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis  in a literal manner is beyond my skills, but I figured the leg brace and missing finger would get the point across. It is evident that Tourmier ( or “Tourmay) has been around – and been knocked around – but he’s still in there kicking.

…like someone else I know.

 

 

Gun Kingdoms 3: Mya

2016-03-04 Mya

More imagery in preparation for Gun Kingdoms 3. Mya is also a recurring character and part of the ship’s crew of the Sand Tyger, though her exact job title is…

Hmmm.

Remember back several posts ago when I talked about “prom sexy” as opposed to blatant in-your-face raunch?  How details that are left to one’s imagination are always so much better. Well, putting a slight twist on that definition we can safely say that Mya is anyone’s prom date.