In Which I Am Shipwrecked, and in Which I Find Dubious Salvation
I was not born of this world, but it seems I am destined to die in it. The unlikely circumstance which brought me to this strange sea shall likely not be seen again, and, certainly, to be seen within my time left upon it.
My given name is Jonathan Taylor-Madsen, and I began my professional career as a sailor in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy six years prior. It was not, however, my choice of career, as I was apprenticed as a cooper. At the gangly age of seventeen I made the unfortunate mistake of drinking in an unfamiliar tavern near the Thames, and when Mickey Finn’s tonic wore off, we were a day out into the Atlantic and sailing for the New World. I quickly learned to follow the quartermaster’s orders, and survived to become an able hand of the frigate, the Valiant. My career had been undistinguished, but I had many years ahead of me yet, and it began to seem likely to me that I would eventually work my way up to an officer, or perhaps even my own command.
Then that changed. Sailing north from St. Kitts to Bermuda, through a region of rumored French privateering activity, the Valiant was escorting a sugar laden convoy of barques when the devil storm hit. Even the swift reaction of the captain and crew of our doomed frigate was not enough to forestall its destruction. The seas swelled with over 100 foot crests and the lightning crashed about our fragile vessel. The Valiant succumbed to the Sea, her master, the convoy was lost, and I found myself floating on flotsam the next morn, amid a Sargasso Sea.
I must have floated for days, without food, water, or hope. I thought that I would surely drown on my waterlogged raft within hours, when, by chance, I drifted towards an unfamiliar island. It looked much like any other Caribbean island, and the calm sea around it belayed any indication of caution. When I came within a few yards of the shore, I made for it-my only chance.
The beach I landed on was desolate. No soul within sight or sound to help me, and so, weak and thirsty, I forged my own survival. I found a small stream which flowed from the central peak of the island, gratified for the fresh water, thanking my God and the luck which had carried me here. From other flotsam of the fleet I managed to salvage solid sustenance.
Flint was in good supply on that island, as well as driftwood and the plentiful coconut trees, so I maintained a beacon fire for all my days spent there. Months later, I spied a ship on the horizon. I added wet leaves to my fire to increase the smoke and attract that sail to me, hoping against doubt for a sharply sighted watch on that vessel. Sure enough, that ship began to move closer to my beacon.
As it came closer, I became aware of the weird silhouette that the craft presented. Her lateen sails were of a strange black, almost shiny material, and her masts appeared to be made of the same stuff. She was massive. Her hull was huge, but shallow. Then I noticed that she did not have a single hull, but three, side by side, in a configuration I had never encountered before. Each hull could have been as large as the barques that we had escorted on our fateful trip in the Valiant, but longer and thinner, with a common deck joining all three. Her guns gleamed on that deck, and were strangely shaped, having two diameters along their length, with a seats mounted to the rear of the guns. It was a sinister sight indeed. I looked to the ship’s colors, and was none too surprised to find a black field with a snake, coiled about a bloody heart-a Jolly Roger to be sure.
I nearly had the good sense to flee, to hide from the approaching apparition, but desperation held me in its thrall. I waved my arms to attract the attention of the deck hands. And notice me they did.
The ship approached the shore much closer than I could have imagined that they could have, weighing anchor just off of the coral reef which surrounded the island. A small, unassuming launch was sent to shore. To my astonishment, it used neither oar nor sail to propel itself through the surf. It thrummed a low vibration as it approached, changing in pitch in rhythm with the surf.
Those that greeted me were as strange as the vessel that they served. They sported many strange costumes, none with any similarity to one another, as if they were all refugees from different cultures spread worldwide.
A tall Norseman greeted me, his blond braided beard reaching nearly to his waist. He wore an English officer’s kit, but I could not believe that he actually been in Her Majesty’s service. He carried a strange looking musket, which bulged out at odd angles from the stock, and looked upon my sorry state in amusement. I was surprised when he addressed me in perfect English, but accented.
“So, you care to escape your predicament, eh lad?” he scoffed. “What can ye offer us in return?”
I would have sold my soul to be rid of my island prison at that point, and told him as much. He laughed, then narrowed his red rimmed eyes at me.
“That you would, boy, if you sail with the Viper’s Teeth! But we were lookin’ for more of what kind of skills ye could offer in that damnation!”
“I’m a seasoned sailor, sir, and have been apprenticed as a cooper in my youth.” I declaimed. “I can read.” I added as he chuckled, waving his men off to fetch water and any supplies from the island.
“So, ye can read, boy? And a cooper, you say? Well, I think we might have uses for ye after all. What’s yer appellation?”
“My Christian name is Jonathan.”
“Well, Jon Cooper. We’ll just have to put them talents ta use, but first help th’ others fetch water. We’ve a thirsty ship, and we’ve a long voyage ahead.”
I showed the men where the best place to retrieve the water in the stream was, then, with great relief, I left that God forsaken island behind forever.
In Which I Find Gainful Employment, and Confirm a Dark Provenance Aboard the Viper's Teeth
The ship was no less strange when upon its deck. The black material seemed to be her main construction material, and scars of terrible heat had blasted her hull, but had seemingly not been able to penetrate it. The masts and deck seemed fibrous, as if made of some kind of artificially stiffened cloth. The construction appeared to be made with no nails at all. Many of the larger joints were made with huge six-sided bolts in the deck, and I wondered at the regularity of their construction.
The Norseman was a midshipman aboard the vessel, by the name of Svendson. He initially set me to menial labors, swabbing the deck, emptying chamber pots, and anything else that a new hand would be expected to perform. He was short in his barked orders to me, and showed no special deference. When these backbreaking chores were finished on the fourth day he seemed to be satisfied with me, and lead me down to the hold, where he showed me many broken barrels and casks. He explained that the ship had limited liquid storage capacity, and that I would need to repair these “liberated” barrels for the ship’s use. I noticed that liquid was not the only thing stored in the containers, as the best had already been used for black powder. He provided me with tools, and I set to my labors.
The familiar barrels were not the only things which appeared to be out of place on that strange faerie craft, making the commonplace seem weird in comparison. Seemingly primitive people were amongst the crew. An Indian might be carrying a tomahawk at his belt, oriental crewman might be sporting their flexible scimitars, and some crew carried complicated items that I could not identify.
But as bizarre as all this seemed, it did not prepare me for the sight of the Captain as she emerged from her staterooms to the deck. She was a tall woman of a paler race that I could not identify, a good head above the tallest of men in the crew, and she appeared to be completely bald. She wore strange darkened spectacles which hid her eyes from view, above a sharp nose and perfect, bowed lips, and she was clothed in a strange black garment that was all of a single piece. At her belt hung a vicious scimitar opposite a strange pistol made of some once-flowing substance. The men showed great respect for her, and called her by name of Frosty Kate. She moved with a predatory grace across the deck, carefully inspecting her charge. Her voice was musical as she instructed her officers to their tasks. She moved past me as I polished a shining steel rail, staring after when she thought that I would not notice. She then reentered her cabin surreptitiously, and the crew returned to their work.
That night, before turning in, I asked Svendson about her. He chuckled, and told me to mind my business, which I resolved to do. He had been impressed at the skills I had shown in repairing and cobbling together casks, and the next day I found myself immediately in the hold at my work. After a few weeks at sea, the cooper work was all but done. The only barrels left that were damaged, were beyond repair. I tore them apart for the iron bands, saving them for future use. I went in search of Svendson to be reassigned other work. I knew that, on any ship, being caught slacking was worse than any menial labor.
When I emerged on deck, I heard a call from the crow’s nest, far above. “Sail ho!” The old call I knew so well. But it was now a call to arms for the piratical craft that I served aboard. Officers ran about barking orders to rig the sails for battle, and the gunners ran to their stations, sitting in the chairs mounted to the rear of the strange cannon. I had no training on what to do in a battle situation on the vessel, so stood in stunned silence trying to stay out of others’ way. I scanned the horizon, finally spotting a square-rigger in the distance, miles away. It would seem to be a while before the Viper’s Teeth could engage her, but I had no doubt that she could close the distance. I knew her speed already.
Frosty Kate appeared on deck amidst the chaos. “Report!” She barked.
Svendson was observing our prey with a spyglass. “She’s English, Ma’am. A frigate, low in the water. She’s loaded Ma’am.”
“Gunner, take out the mainmast!” she yelled to the nearest.
I couldn’t help but scoff. Was she mad? No gun could touch a ship at that range. In my stint aboard the Valiant we had taken out pirate pinnaces before, but never at that extreme range. And to target a mast? Svendson observed me with much amusement. He seemed to know something that I did not. He handed me the spyglass, laughing.
The gun turned on its axis, complex gearing whirred, changing the gun’s elevation. Then it spat fire, and a gout of flame spewed out of the gun as the barrel collapsed on itself, and then sprang immediately back to its original shape. A huge thunderclap assaulted my ears. Gasping, I raised the spyglass to my eye and spun to look at the target. The was an explosion amidships, and indeed, the mainmast collapsed. Smoke poured from her deck as her frantic crew attempted to douse the flames. She wouldn’t be escaping. I handed the spyglass back to the thoroughly amused Svendson, who chuckled at my disbelief.
Our hell craft turned toward her prey to close. She maintained battle sail, and tacked at a swift reach directly towards the wounded frigate. I knew fear, for she presented her bow to the enemy, and the frigate was even now turning slowly to level cannon at her, to walk our deck. Madness and recklessness! As we drew close to her, Frosty Kate shouted to the bow gun “Chain gun! Fire at will!”
The bow gun was seemingly lighter than those strange cannon port and starboard, and had four slender barrels that were mounted parallel to each other. The whole of it turned together, issuing a hellish chugging sound, loud enough to deafen, and a hail of smoke and leaden projectiles flew at our quarry, tearing down men and sail alike. They fell in a line, as if all shot at once, blood exploding from their bodies in red fountains of gore.
When the enemy had been silenced, the Viper’s Teeth tacked alongside.
“Grappling hooks!” the Captain called, and I was relieved to see that the means of grappling was no different than that I had known before. The men slung them over to the cowed frigate, drawing her in and making fast the lines. She screamed “At ‘em, Boys!” and the crew went flying over the rails to cut down the last remaining resistance.
“Get over there, Jon!” Svendson yelled, tossing me a cutlass. “Don’t claim plunder before it’s divvied. And make sure the barrels make it intact!”
Sword in hand, I crossed via gangplanks which had been lain across the two ships, and boarded the smoke filled deck of the frigate. The boarding party was still at their bloody business, but I noticed that the horrified sailors that offered no resistance were merely restrained, not killed. They had a look in their eyes that must have mirrored my own: shock and disbelief. My suspicions of the dark provenance of the Viper’s Teeth were thoroughly confirmed, and I wondered when the gates of Hell would present themselves before me. I think that it was then that I first resolved to be rid of this crew and the terror that they brought upon the seas.
We secured the cargo aboard our own ship. Surviving members of the enemy were offered a chance of “salvation” and service aboard under Frosty Kate, but none accepted, and were summarily shot. The ship was then put to the torch, with no survivors, and we put distance between us and the stench of its burning.
Dropping character for a second here (ARRRR!)
Thank you for reading this rough draft. It was written for today, so I did not have time to refine it. Normally I write SF that is "so hard you can cut glass with it". But I haven't gotten much beyond plot in this...
Please BannaOj--I haven't done the research yet. Anything you can criticise, please do! And all you writers out there--feel free to critique! I won't be hurt by constructive criticism! I welcome it.
Those of you who enjoyed the plot, thank you. It is really a tribute to Michael Moorcock, as that is what I have been reading of late. If you are familiar, it has much the same flavor as the Warlord of the Air which I enjoyed immensely!