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Stories from the Verse
Old Verses New
Chapter 43: Kondor 56
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The Mary Piper pulled out of Sardic on a clear and sunny morning and made for the main currents of the open sea. It was clear sailing, a promising beginning for the next journey through the loop.
The promising beginning didn't last. Two weeks from Sardic Kondor heard what he took for thunder. Then it got closer, and soon he realized that he was listening to cannon fire. They were under attack.
Grabbing his pistol, he came up on deck to see how he could help. Deckhands were struggling with the rigging while security was arranging cannon. He put his hand to one of the cannons where Walter was working.
"Why aren't we shooting back?" he asked.
"They're hoping for a lucky shot, something that will slow us down, so they can catch us. They've got a large, powerful ship, but she's slow and we'll outrun her. But if they get that hit, they'll close and try to board us. So we want to be ready to try to sink her if she gets too close, but we're not going to waste cannon fire shooting at the water."
With the speed of practiced years, Walter loaded the cannon, and helped shift it to the gun port.
"Go help with the sails," he said. "The best defense we have at the moment is speed." Kondor sprang over to the rigging and lent his hand to a line.
Taking a moment to glance around him, he realized that the gap was still closing between them and the pirate ship. It wasn't that the pirates were gaining on them; it was that the pirates had been ahead of them in the lane. It presented a difficult choice for pilots and navigators: ride the current forward and hope to get past the enemy, or use the winds to maneuver across the current into still waters where they might become becalmed and vulnerable. In nine out of ten encounters, it was a safer bet to rush forward; Kondor wondered for only a moment whether this might be that tenth time. If the pirate ship was heavy in the water, given her size, the Mary Piper could probably outrun her in light winds and slow currents. The commands to the sails suggested that an effort was being made to split the difference, to distance themselves from the pirate ship while staying in the lane. The stream was miles wide, and although strongest in the center still had a great deal of power throughout–and no one was truly certain where the center of the current was at any moment, so they could as easily be moving into as away from it. He gave another pull on the line.
A loud crack disrupted his thoughts. "That ties it," one of the others said. "They've cracked a yardarm." Looking up, Kondor saw that they had indeed had their lucky shot, and one of the cross beams which supported the main mast was starting to bend. "Another strong wind, and that's going to snap."
Kondor didn't know whether he could do anything. Already he heard the shouts of the engineers, as they grabbed reinforcing posts and ropes. They could probably use a hand, he thought, someone to help steady the yardarm while they lashed it in place; so he climbed the rigging with the professional talents he had learned over the past few years, and bracing himself in the ropes grabbed the extended beam.
Another cannon ball whizzed past; this one found a sail, ripping a long tear in it. Kondor was too focused on the task at hand to give much thought to that. The three shipwrights were crowded around him, positioning several long strips of wood and securing them with tightly-wrapped cords; and the pirate ship suddenly came into the corner of his right eye. The enemy had won the first battle; they would soon be aboard.
An explosion of cannon fire below him, like a string of boomers sounding in a fireworks display, told him security's first strategy: they were trying to sink the enemy, to put a hole in the hull at the waterline. It was a difficult task, because the cannon had to be angled downward the right degree; if they hit the water the shot would lose momentum and fail to damage the hull, but if they hit too high any breach would be inconsequential. The pirate ship sailed smoothly alongside, telling Kondor that they had failed to hit her as they had hoped. Below grapples reached across the gap; the decks would soon be swarming with pirates.
Turnabout was fair play, he thought. When the grapples pulled, the ships would tilt ever so slightly toward each other. Grabbing a line from the yardarm above, he timed the move and swung out across the gap into the rigging of the larger vessel. The pirates below seemed unaware of his presence.
Now that he was here, he needed a plan, an idea, of something that would help. The pirates wouldn't leave their ship totally unmanned, and even with his nine bullets and his military training, it would not be easy capturing the ship before the other pirates attempted to retreat. There was something else he could do. He descended the rigging to the main deck, and dropped through a hatch to the gun deck below. He readied his mace; there might be someone around any turn, and it was better to be prepared.
The guns were largely abandoned, but he'd never worked with cannon, and thought they were too high in the boat for what he had in mind. Instead, he grabbed a sealed barrel of gunpowder, a smaller one that he could carry easily on his left shoulder. Thus equipped, he found the next hatch, and started down through the crew quarters into the depths of the ship, the hold.
It was dark and cool in the hold, and smelled of pitch, tar, and vermin. The noise of the battle above was muffled, and the quiet of this place sapped some of the urgency from his errand. Looking around, he saw crates of goods, including food and tools but also gold diktar and jewelry and precious stones. It had never occurred to him to wonder about gems other than emeralds; yet there must be trade routes that dealt in these as well. The stones here were cut and polished, the finished work of a lapidary. It was a shame to think of the pirates taking these with them; especially when Kondor could take a few with him. He grabbed handfuls of finished stones, and stuffed them in the large pockets of his camouflaged fatigues and under his shirt until he was heavy with stones; he had diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and a number of stones the names of which he couldn't quickly guess. He also grabbed several heavy gold chains, and draped them around his neck. Then a ring caught his eye, a fine silver ring with a blue star sapphire in it. It would look good on his finger, he thought, and tried it on. It took two tries to find a finger which it easily fit; but if he had the chance, he could get it sized.
Time was escaping him. He needed to do what he came to do.
He moved the barrel of powder to the outer hull, and set it sideways so that the end was against the wall. Then he braced it, surrounding it with heavy crates of gold and silver. Stand back, he thought; he would probably only get one shot at this. He shouldered his mace, drew his pistol, and walked back toward the keel.
Taking careful aim, he fired into the barrel. The gunpowder, ignited from the heat of the slug, exploded, and a shower of gold and silver shrapnel thrown from its blast tore excruciatingly into his flesh. He fell backward from the concussion, and lay bleeding on the uneven deck.
As if to add insult to injury, the salt water of the ocean rushed into his wounds, biting, stinging. He sat, almost involuntarily, but the pain of his injuries slowed him, and the rising water impeded his movements. He wasn't certain, but it looked as if the ship was already beginning to list; in any event, it was sinking. He had succeeded.
He struggled against the pain, trying to find his feet; but his torn legs rebelled against his burdened weight, and he fell forward into the brine. He managed to lift his face to get a breath, but the pain in his arms objected to the movement, and the level was already climbing beyond his ability to rise above it. Collapsing into the cool biting sea, he soon forgot where he was.
The faces of the dead surrounded him. Perhaps there was an afterlife. Mummified bodies stared from hollowed eyes; crypts rose beside him. The dead had come for him, and he could not escape.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with eight other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #89: Novel Confrontations. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: