The third installment in a series of short fiction from my Gbahn and Archipelago world, in which Mr. Midshipman Rhodson discovers he can do something surprising.
A Gbahn and Archipelago story
Another one was coming, another one of those huge waves. Rhodson could see it through his telescope, out in the water, rolling toward the ship. It kept rolling and rolling no matter how much he wanted it to go a different direction, and he was sure it was going to make him sick again.
“Enemy ship eight miles north-northwest,” the knight at the stern said. His words were short and choppy like the water beneath them. Those little waves didn’t make Rhodson feel much better, but he’d almost gotten used to them. He’d also finally figured out what the Knights of the Order were doing, standing there at the stern rail holding a big hoop stretched with fabric, catching the wind. They could read signals thrown out on the air by some other pair of knights on some other ship, miles ahead of them. They could be prepared when they were about to encounter an enemy. They could avoid big storms. They could probably even avoid that huge rolling wave, but Rhodson didn’t think they were going to.
The first lieutenant shouted out an order and the telescope slipped in Rhodson’s hands. He managed to grasp it before the thing smashed on the deck, but had to bite back a shout of pain. His hands were raw as a dead fish. Yesterday the lieutenant had ordered him to climb to the masthead, and hundred and fifty terrifying feet straight up, after Rhodson had gotten into a fight with another boy. Not even a midshipman, and the boy had laughed at Rhodson for getting seasick. Now the boy had a black eye, but Rhodson had torn his hands up climbing the ropes.
“Are your ears as bad as your stomach, Mr. Rhodson?” the lieutenant repeated, and Rhodson realized he hadn’t heard what the officer was saying at all. “Would you be so kind as to check our bearing, or have the workings of a compass eluded you?”
One of the knights said to the other one, hardly bothering to drop his voice to a whisper, “Mr. Midshipman isn’t even smart enough to puke over the lee side.”
For a second Rhodson tried to think of some clever retort, something about how the Order had all their heads shaven and what ugly hair they must have had. Then the leading edge of the wave started to lift the ship under his feet. He managed to blurt out, “Call of nature,” and tuck the telescope into his pocket before running from the quarterdeck.
At least no one else laughed at him as he hurried toward the bow, and none of the sailors were using the heads. Rhodson pushed all the way to the head rail, paused long enough to figure out which side was windward and which side was leeward, chose the side without wind, climbed onto a coil of rope and hung his head and shoulders over the rail. Then something miraculous – his nausea passed with his dinner still inside him. Rhodson looked down at the shifting water and laughed at it.
For a little while he thought he could pretend it was just him and the waves, no half-hour bell, no rude lieutenants and imperious captains, no Order. A landlubber like him from the middle of Arland, no idea why his uncle bought him a commission in the navy, shipping him out when he was thirteen, never having set foot on a boat in his life. He almost thought he might like it, just him and the waves. No shouted orders, no drum beating to quarters, no guns being loaded.
Then the ship made a sharp turn to starboard and flung Rhodson over the rail. His foot caught in the rope and pulled the end down with him, he was falling fast toward the water, and all he could think was No – that’s not right, left is larboard, I’m always getting them confused.
The waves rushed into his mouth and his eyes, he couldn’t see the ship, he had no idea where that pounding sound was coming from. Then he felt something coil around him, something horrifying that he tried to kick away until he realized it was the rope. It snapped taut, its other end caught on something behind the rail. He could climb it, he could save himself – but his hands burned as he grabbed hold of it, still raw and now stinging from saltwater. He bobbed on the waves not a cable-length away from his ship, which had caught up to that enemy and stopped to fire on her. He wasn’t even on the side that was lobbing chain and grapeshot and he was going to die anyway.
For a while he could pretend he hadn’t fallen overboard, he’d never climbed onto that coil of rope, he’d never caught his foot in it, or that he could climb the rope, or that the rope would loop itself into a neat swing and scoop him up, pull him back toward the ship. He could see himself on the deck again, all dry. It was the most ridiculous thing he had ever imagined, and he wrapped the loose end of the rope around his thighs and held on as if it might really happen.
And all at once, it did. Under his hands the rope stiffened as if it were alive, it tightened around his seat, and it began to coil on itself, lifting him from the sea, pulling him back toward the head rail. Water streamed from his clothes and pooled around his feet as he clambered onto the deck, then tried to make the rope go loose again so he could untangle himself from it.
The knights were standing there at the door to the forecastle cabin, taking shelter from the fighting. They did not see Rhodson come up. They probably couldn’t even hear him dripping, half-deafened as they must have been from the sound of the ship’s guns. Rhodson stood there and laughed for minutes before one of them turned, saw him, and jumped in surprise. Oh, how surprised they would be if they’d seen what he had done, if they knew they weren’t the only ones on this ship who could make things like air and rope do what they wanted. When another big wave came and lifted the ship, the two knights staggered and clutched at each other to keep their footing, but Rhodson held his balance and strode past them like he’d been born on the waves.
© 2013 Michelle M. Welch