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Iremima stood on the deck of the rolling ship, sharp eyes scanning the shore. The steam engines purred beneath her feet, propelling the Wave Climber slowly, but steadily, forward without the need for wind. Author's Notes
"Think there are people in this land?" Ussil sounded disinterested in the idea; he was a warsailor at heart, not an explorer, true to his Duurludirj blood. Iremima didn't count herself in either camp, preferring to think only of the tides and winds and the thrill of moving over water - the faster, the better.
She shrugged. "There could be," she said noncommittally. "There's game and green, in the summer at least. Vicious, long winters, though, and the bay freezes solid." That alone was enough to convince her that it wasn't a place she wanted to live. She preferred the freedom to escape to warmer places in the winter, and couldn't bear the idea of an ocean of ice. Soon enough, it would be time to go south to the Duurludirj Islands and spend time dodging sea monsters, or traveling the sparsely occupied eastern coast - maybe sailing up to Ibabesh, along the inland sea that divided the Empire nearly in half.
She spared a moment of pity for Malaamig and the pair of hard-headed Scientists he'd gone out to play inland explorer with. The original plan had involved a dozen people with as many horses, but when funding dried up, the Scientists had refused to give up, even when their party was whittled down to just three of them and four horses. Iremima was just as happy to have fewer horses traveling on her ship.
It meant, however, that she and her crew had been recruited to gather data, filling in gaps in the charts all along the northern shore of the bay. It wasn't difficult work, but it was long periods of boredom, infrequently punctuated by danger in these unknown waters.
Iremima didn't cope well with boredom. She paced the ship while the crew documented the shore and watched the cloudless sky for signs of weather, and the wrinkles of the sea for signs of monsters. The summer days lasted right through what ought to be night, and she found that sleep didn't come easily with the sun in the sky. She worried... about her choices for their route, about her choices in life. She pondered, and she wished endlessly for a solution to the problem of playing hexball on a rolling ship. A round or two of the precision table-top game would soothe her nerves.
Ussil glanced up at her - he was Duurludirj, and his head barely reached her waist - and caught her playing with the lumpy bead that she'd woven into her braid that morning. Iremima made herself put her hand back on the rail, though she didn't need it for balance. The bead didn't match her usual style of adornment - she liked shiny things and fancy metal-work, not dull and earth-colored things. Wearing it at all was the closest she could come to admitting to the child who had given it to her - a child she wasn't licensed to be mother to.
She originally thought that the child had been the culmination of a streak of bad luck - poor timing in her career, and possibly the end of her guild license entirely. But the timing of her pregnancy, and the coincident of a female companion who was likewise pregnant but legally so, a storm that left them stranded outside the civilization of the Empire, and the luck of the other woman's miscarriage at the very end of their shared trial... Iremima could consider the child nothing less than very lucky indeed, and it was of great comfort to her to know the precocious little girl was being raised legally, by a loving mother.
She was almost glad when the alarm bell rang to interrupt her thoughts, even as her adrenaline spiked and she ran for the wheel.
Ussil, with short, fast strides, went for the forward harpoon, and the rest of the crew boiled up from below.
"Deathfin." Thlima, her burly second mate, was standing at the wheel, and pointed at the upright dorsal fin that was cutting through the waves towards them. "Big one, and it's seen us." These northern beasts were far larger than the southern kin that Iremima was used to seeing, and their experience with them so far indicated that they would attack a ship of the Wave Climber's size, whereas the southern versions would give it wide berth. In their encounters so far, Iremima had been able to outrun them or find shallow enough water that they chose not to follow, but the wind was calm today, and the plodding steam paddles weren't made for speed; they were no match for the sea monster's strong swimming fins. The only shallow water in quick reach was an obstacle course of uncharted rocks, and sharp dark spires that looked like ancient structures off of sheer cliffs. Iremima dismissed flight as an option.
"Man the harpoons!" Iremima cried. "Load the Exploder!"
She didn't trust the Exploder - it was still considered experimental, and though the Scientists at the Engineering schools swore they'd taken every precaution, Iremima could not help remembering the gray rag headlines when one of their early models had blown up not the monster they were fighting, but the ship, instead. She'd known a linesman on that ship.
The Exploder looked too innocuous to sink the ill-fated Sea Mountain, let alone to cause harm to a creature the size of the deathfin that was bearing down on them. But the usual spring-loaded harpoons caused minimal damage to the smaller southern deathfins, and these larger cousins looked even tougher. The Exploder was their only chance.
Ussil took the controls of the Exploder, carefully loading an explosive canister behind the sharp harpoon. It wasn't as heavy a harpoon as the others on deck, now being rolled into place and anchored against the starboard rail. This one was more constructed for penetration than for bodily damage like the others - more graceful and less deadly looking. Its killing power was in the canister, which was supposed to explode from beneath the skin of the beast.
They had only fired the Exploder once, at anchor as a test, and Iremima hadn't been impressed by the minor, harmless-looking fountain of water that had resulted. Ussil had assured her that the effect would be much better from within a deathfin, and she'd allowed him to convince her to install it. Now, with a little luck, it seemed their best hope of emerging alive.
"Brace for shot!" It was closer now, its undulating stroke in clear view by eye, and it's huge, evil, alligator-like head pointed directly for them. Fins on either side of the massive body drove it straight for the Wave Climber.
A side shot would be their best chance at a fatal hit with the new weapon. "Fire harpoon three for its face," Iremima said firmly. "When it turns, give it the Exploder in the side."
"Kiss your family rings and prepare to fire!" Thlima roared. "Harpoon three!"
The crew at harpoon three let the weapon fly with practiced efficiency, and the ship rocked back as it released with a song of metal towards the monster.
They couldn't wait to see if it arrived on target before Thlima was shouting, "Fire the Exploder!"
As the Exploder, with a far quieter twang, fired from its frame, the first harpoon found its target, and scraped ineffectively off the armored face of the deathfin. The deathfin flinched, paused, and for only a moment, its body bunched up, presenting a side-target to the Wave Climber. The Exploder found that moment.
Iremima could only see that it hit, not how deep it cut, and for several moments, there was near silence on the deck while they watched with sinking spirits. Then, red sea water exploded out of the side of the sea monster, and a piercing shriek of pain and rage made Iremima instinctively reach for her ears. "Reload the Exploder!" she cried. "Harpoon four!"
The number four harpoon gave its metal twang, but missed as the injured deathfin arched itself out of the water to dive, displaying a deep bloody hole all along its side and folding its dorsal. Ragged cheers rose from the crew, gaining strength when the monster didn't rise again. They hadn't killed it, but had certainly vanquished it for the moment. Such a wound on one of the smaller deathfins that they more regularly faced would have been deadly.
"Daft thing works," Thlima said in wonder, as Ussil joined them on the aft deck.
"Of course it does," Ussil said with no little pride. "Duurludirj machines always work!"
"No they don't," Thlima and Iremima said together, and both laughed at Ussil's afronted look.
They broke out bottles of fine Tifirf wine and had a party that night, after anchoring in a safe harbor. Thlima shared his booming bass voice in song and the cookware became percussion for a rowdy celebration of victory. Even Iremima danced, and when she finally admitted defeat in a step-battle with the cook, she retired, laughing, to the relative privacy of the forward deck.
Ussil found her there, staring out at the moonlit shore.
To her chagrin, Iremima realized she was playing with the bead again and dropped her hand to the rail at once.
"Don't worry," Ussil said companionably. "I'm not going to pry and I don't care which of the stories are true. That's a fine good luck token, and we're all glad you were wearing it today."
Iremima felt half a smile crook her face. "I don't think a good luck token is what brought down the deathfin," she said wryly.
"Nah," Ussil agreed. "Our fine Exploder did that. But it doesn't hurt to have a little extra luck around the place."
The missing half of the smile bloomed over Iremima's face. "A little luck doesn't hurt at all," she agreed.
A September 2010 Muse Fusion story, prompted by Aaron William's request to see new technology in use.