Shift World I Book IV Prologue
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Every time a ship sails from port, it leaves one hundred little tragedies in its wake. Sea Breeze was no different. A young woman stood on a pier watching her shipmate say goodbye to his pregnant wife and small daughter. Nordic, the ship's captain, firmly believed that senior sailors should teach junior sailors the ropes. As such, he paired off sailors going out to sea for the first time with mentors. The pair stayed together until one of the sailors retired, died, or left the ship. Her mentor's mentor retired just as she joined the ship's crew, and they worked together ever since.
She crossed the ship's bow for the first time five years ago as a young teenager, which made her a late-teenager at the recent departure. Her mentor had been in his late twenties and a fifteen-year veteran. Now, he was in his thirties and a twenty-year veteran. The man had barely been more than a greenhorn himself based on the standards of ships, but he knew far more than her. To give an idea of the massive gap in experience between sailors, Nordic had been on the ocean for nearly 50 years, and his first mate had sailed for even longer.
When her mentor finally finished hugging his pregnant wife, the young woman hugged her next. Sometime shortly after becoming a sailor, the young woman introduced her mentor to her cousin. The two had been like sisters growing up in the Creeping Ice's Village of the Royal Port. As it turned out, the man and her cousin had known each other since childhood; not unusual in such a small community.
The fortuitous pairing of the young woman gave her cousin a convenient reason to talk with the mentor. As it turned out, they had liked each other from afar for a long time and fell in love shortly after reacquainting. It was quite a sickeningly sweet story that the young woman didn't care to dwell on.
The young woman hugged her niece before heading to their ship, Sea Breeze. Upon arrival, they climbed up to the observation platform situated above the bridge. Their duty was to look out for unexpected water-born hazards while the ship pulled free from dock and transited to the mouth of the cape of the Royal Port in the Creeping Ice. The young woman just hoped that the trip would end quickly, and they could see their families again.
Routine dictated nearly every aspect of shipboard life. At least when things went well and nothing unexpected happened. Like now, the woman mustered with the observation team on Sea Breeze's weather deck. The observation team's name misled outsiders a little bit since only a small part of their responsibilities could be called observing. Really, they worked on anything and everything outside of the hull, the wooden layer making the ship's outer skin.
When a sail started tearing, the observation team stripped it and sewed it up. The sailors maintained lifeboats, repaired broken planks, adjusted sails and lines, and of course, watched for dangers from the observation deck. During times where narwhal attacked, which happened infrequently, the observation team erected harpoon launchers to injure the creatures and send them fleeing. At those times, the young woman and her mentor manned the forward-most harpoon launcher. Though in her five years aboard, she never actually fired a harpoon outside of practice.
The navigation team calculated routes from the bridge and handled surprisingly robust bureaucratic functions. The bridge raised above the main deck to create a room with a low enough ceiling not to block off the sails.
The support team basically handled all the ship's functions inside the main hull: cooking, cleaning, laundry, and that sort of thing.
The observation team ended up helping the support team pretty much every day because a ship required a massive amount of work to keep running efficiently. During times of great need, like repairs during a storm, the support team helped the observation team, so it evened out. The navigation team didn't generally help or receive help from the other two units.
After the muster concluded, the pair helped Montis conduct routine maintenance and inspections on lifeboats. Lifeboats could be useful in a surprisingly small window since the ship had to travel close enough to shore to row there in an emergency. Too close, however, and it made more sense just to sail the vessel to the beach before sinking. Because of that, many sailors didn't find much need to maintain the boats, but Montis didn't share their apathy.
Every sailor found a pet project they worked toward and did more conscientiously than other tasks. Apparently, the young woman was overly serious when the ship launched and spent the whole time on guard, making sure nothing endangered the journey. Nothing had in her five years, but she still felt like slacking on such an easy job would end up a bad omen. For Montis, he must have felt the same way about inspecting the lifeboats. Surely his diligence paid off since they hadn't used a single rowboat since he arrived. They also hadn't used a boat before that, but such details didn't matter.
After the ship left port, approached a storm, or left a storm, Montis inspected the lifeboats. He'd make sure everyone was operational and without defect. Today, the pair helped him and then went into the hull to assist with other tasks.
After entering the ship's belly, they helped the newest addition, Cogs, who inventoried the ship's various cargo holds. Since he had been so new, the young woman and her mentor had been assigned to escort and conduct the physical labor necessary to move around heavy boxes. He looked thin and sickly and barely able to hold up the clipboard he used to mark the stack of invoices affixed to the wooden board. At least Cogs tried to move cargo until he tired. Eventually, he might be able to complete the work himself after building up enough stamina.
He'd drivel on at great lengths about opening more ports throughout the Lush Forest to expand trading from one provincial capital to the next. He seemed confident that nobles would back the endeavor, but the young woman had her doubts, which created a strange mix of annoyance and admiration at his ambitions.
Any sea route would run strictly parallel with the Southern Trade Route, but in theory, a ship's voyage took less time than the marching convoys. However, setting up such sea routes would undoubtedly upset the convoy leaders that moved the merchandise along the road. The ships were also less flexible than convoys since they couldn't take more than a certain amount, and running mostly empty vessels wasted resources. They'd also need wagons to deliver, so it doesn't save much.
The young man, however, had dismissed her concerns with some kind of rambling about how good it would be for the empire, and she just shrugged it off. People that refused to listen to perfectly valid concerns doomed themselves.
Finally, the pair went to the galley to help Voceroy prepare dinner for the night with his mentor, the ship's lead cook. He had been scouted by Sea Breeze's first mate while cooking dinner for himself on a beach near the Lush Forest's Royal Port. The young man picked up on shipboard cooking amazingly quickly but basically performed at a perfunctory level elsewhere.
For a time, he trained to work with the observation team during shipboard repairs. He washed out after not even being able to tie the correct knots when fastening lines. He'd get lost going through the ship's stores for repair supplies and forget basic protocol on when and how to report information to his shipmates.
The woman couldn't honestly remember a less suited sailor in her five years, but every job had its tool, as they say. Voceroy somehow accurately guessed precisely how many supplies to pull for a single meal, prepare everything in the correct order at precisely the right time, and was a whiz at spicing food.
To Nordic's credit, however, he hadn't once given up on the young man. The boy worked in the galley almost non-stop day and night, but on the rare occasions he's afforded a break, Nordic forced seamanship into his head. Even if it took twenty years, he would learn everything he needed to know.
The ship bobbed as waves rolled across the seascape. The woman yawned, lulled into sleepiness by the gentle rocking. Sailors with any level of experience preferred such an uneventful trip to one with a constant stream of emergencies, but staying off boredom became a chore. Now had been no exception, and the young woman stared at the ocean with her mind drifting in tune with the waves.
A steady bell rang every two to three seconds, signaling active sea life near Sea Breeze. The woman looked up to the observation deck, and the lookout pointed to the horizon over the ship's port side. The woman strolled to the bow's railing and watched the horizon. A pod of narwhal occasionally breached the water, splashing back down and disappearing under the waves.
"What are you doing?" Her mentor ran up to the railing, and she snapped from her daze. The young woman needed to set up the harpoon launcher that she and her mentor ran as the forward gunner squad.
The pair hurried over to the ship's front railing and approached a chest-high case riveted to the deck. The woman twisted a series of locking keys until the mechanism uncoupled from the case, and the top section slipped off. The man lifted out the harpoon launcher's base and dragged it to a steel plate located at the forward-most section of railing. The man aligned four holes in flaps protruding from the launcher with holes in the steel plate.
At the cue, the woman screwed in the case's keys. Each one screwed in until only a bisected loop stuck out of the deck. The stand's builders used the circles to grip the keys, which acted as the bolts locking the base down. The woman shouted, "Latched!"
The man slid his hand up the stand and then pushed and pulled to ensure the structure didn't sway. Satisfied with the installation, the man rushed back to the holder to retrieve the launching mechanism. With the young woman's help, they pulled the launcher free, carried it into position, and hoisted it onto the stand. The launcher slipped around the post and locked in place at the top with a metallic clink. The young woman ran to the case to retrieve harpoons while he inspected the completed weapon.
The design resembled a miniaturized ballista. A hand crank drew back an internal mechanism that was held under pressure. With an iron harpoon loaded into the top, the gunner fired by pulling a handle on the right side. Since the launchers had been designed for firing at massive nearby creatures, specifically narwhal, the engineers didn't include any kind of complicated aiming devices.
Before loading, the young woman handed her mentor an iron harpoon. To prevent rust from corrosive saltwater, a thin layer of oil coated all the metal pieces. It didn't affect the launcher's effectiveness, but the metal had an unpleasant slimy feeling. The man finished his inspection before handing it back and saying, "We need to do a better job oiling these, there's a little rust forming here."
The young woman wanted to object but knew better than to argue over maintenance. She didn't want to reveal that she felt the paradox of being bored and not wanting to do any more work than necessary. She loaded the harpoon.
"Three Minutes!" Nordic the Shark, Captain of Sea Breeze, shouted from an opening in the bridge that overlooked the forward weather deck. "Not bad, but you're still the slowest. What happened?"
"We, uh..." The man spent a moment thinking up the most diplomatic way to say what he wanted. "We spent too long assessing the situation."
"I see. There's plenty of time to assess the threat after the harpoon launcher is set up! If you assess first, then you delay the time you have to actually do something!"
"Aye, Sir!" The young woman and her mentor shouted to Nordic at the same time. He nodded and returned to giving orders to people hurrying in and out of the bridge.
"Why do we even bother with this?!" The teen girl puffed out her cheeks in an uncharacteristic display of her young age.
"Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it..." The man's voice didn't convey an ounce of conviction.
"Thanks, Grandma! I mean, have you ever needed to actually fire before?"
"You leave Grandma out of this! She's a sweetheart!" The man cracked the same wry smile he used when trying to get out of addressing something unpleasant.
"Well?" The young woman wasn't going to let him evade her question, however.
"From what I've heard," The man sighed, "Narwhal sometimes attack ships that get near them. Those horns aren't just for show either. They can puncture the hull and then rip out a huge chunk, trying to free itself. If you hit it with a harpoon, it hurts just enough that it will run away."
"What? Like the stupid thing sees us a predator?"
"Narwhal only attack predators that are busy attacking another narwhal. I guess they're both clever and foolish in that way. I think it's more like it sees a ship as a giant narwhal. They are very territorial creatures, after all."
"That seems like a bit of a stretch."
"Narwhal pods tend to follow an alpha. A giant narwhal that protects the calves and mates with the females. Those alphas probably see a ship as another alpha coming into their territory."
"But why? They look nothing alike!"
"It's big... longish... kind of round in the center...in the water..." "So, if I threw a sandwich in the water, it would think that's an alpha?"
"That's not big..." The man spoke with a seriousness far too great for how the conversation veered off. "It's also important to remember not to fire until we hear the final warning bell."
"Yeah, yeah. A bell that will never start ringing, I get it."
At the end of another voyage, Sea Breeze started preparations to enter dock at the Royal Port in the Lush Forest. Spirits among the crew sailed much higher than when they departed. They looked forward to spending at least a few days lounging around the village while drinking beer, walking around the countryside, and finding frivolous wastes of time. Sailors appreciated such trivial pursuits even after such an uneventful trip. The young woman climbed the ladder leading to the observation deck to finish her last duty before docking, watching out for hazards.
At the top of the rope ladder, the young woman's mentor held out his hand and pulled her onto the observation deck. She dusted herself off and started observing the nearby port and waters right away, partially to avoid having to make eye contact with her mentor. It wasn't as though she wanted to spurn him, per se, but since only four people fit on the deck, she became acutely aware of how close he stood.
Sailors lived their lives in tight spaces, which meant spending most of your days surrounded by people. In that sense, she became used to standing near people, but she still managed to stay at least a few feet away. On the observation platform, she couldn't get far enough away to stop him from reaching out and pulling her close at any time. If he wanted, which he didn't, and she knew that. She pushed the irrelevant thoughts from her mind and focused on the task at hand.
Nothing sat in the water between the ship and pier. It only meant that a ship hadn't sunk while pulling out since Sea Breeze last left the port, which had apparently happened hundreds of years ago. The incoming vessel slammed into the husk of a sunken boat, tearing a hole in the hull and ruining the cargo in the forward hold. The young woman imagined that long gone captain was displeased.
She also couldn't find signs of sea life moving around the water. It's not as though a dolphin or shark damaged the ship even if it hit the creature head-on, but a sudden thud on the vessel's side set more than a few people on edge. The woman looked to the dock, and a large number of armored fighters surprised her. "Hey, do you see that?"
The man woke from his daydream and looked toward the pier. He started shouting, "Captain! Captain! Soldiers on the pier!" As though following a shouted chain, one sailor after another relayed the message verbatim, ending with a faintly audible voice in the bridge below.
As the ship pulled alongside the dock, a group of workers reeled in mooring lines that Sea Breeze's crew threw. The workers tied the ropes to bollards dockside until the vessel held fast. Finally, the workers rolled out a set of wooden steps that latched to the ship's side. A boarding party walked onto Sea Breeze after the stairs had been locked in place.
Nordic the Shark greeted the party as they boarded. The captain wore dragon fire steel plates embedded in his leather armor. The young woman guessed the occasion must have been momentous enough for him to wear his full imperial regalia. "Is there something we should know about?"
"Shut your mouth, traitor." A woman wearing a full set of dragon fire steel plate practically spit her words onto Nordic. She slammed the tip of an intertwined seashell steel lance into the deck, breaking a sizable chunk from the floor.
"Traitor? What are you claiming I've done?" Nordic wore a grim expression. Although as faithful as any captain could ask for, his crew'd be slaughtered by the band of cackling, grinning soldiers pouring onto the ship.
"Now, now, Danil. We don't know if he's a traitor just yet. Maybe he's only a dupe who may still be willing to work with us." The man carried a pole-arm with a blade formed in the shape of a swooping hawk. A red cloth draped across his helm that covered his face and matched his dragon fire armor. Black decorations and piping liberally adorned the armor, which suggested his high rank.
"You are far too kind for someone named The Demon's Wrath, my lord." The warrior's mouth twisted into a mischievous smile, like if she expected a great reaction from Nordic, whose face turned from grim to despondent.
"You see, we have evidence that shows you are smuggling for The Horse Thief. Evidence for which you have no defense. We are here to confiscate these goods, and your fate and the fate of your crew will depend on what happens next..."