Journey Beyond the Sea

by Geron Kees

Chapter 1

Geron Kees © 2019, 2024. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

Master Terpin was a tall man, perhaps the tallest that Jem Hanlon had ever met. He was a good head taller than Jem's father, who was already a head taller than Jem himself, which made Master Terpin impressive, indeed. And, the man's height was not the only thing that was grand. His face had been weathered to a mask by sun and sea and simple age, to where he looked almost like a stone statue come alive, and a stern and demanding stone it was, too. His dark Master's uniform, old yet sturdy, its brass buttons shined and its cuffs and collar pressed, also suggested an uncompromising refusal to bow to the wearing forces of time. Here was a man who had been far, and seen much, and lived to come home to tell about it.

They were within the walls of the Orxhead, the tavern-at-the-pier that served the sailing men of Nocksic Bay, near the entry to the great room warmed by the giant hearth in the stone rear wall of the place. Master Terpin had just risen from a table, and had been on his way out as Jem had entered, but had paused when the boy had spoken to him.

"You are Master Terpin, of Vespris?"

"Yes, I am. How did you know me to seek me out, lad?"

"Sir, I was told to look for the tallest man I would find in the tavern. You are he, by far."

Master Terpin nodded. "And your business?"

"I'm seeking a berth, sir."

"I see. And what name would I place on my crew list, should you prove to be worth the task?"

"Jemya Hanlon, sir. But I go by Jem, if you don't mind."

They regarded each other in silence a moment. The man's eyes were gray, and steady, and had the look of eyes that had gazed over and into the sea for a very long time, and were at home with its mysteries. Yet there were crinkles at the corners of those eyes, as if to say that not everything that Master Terpin had gazed upon had been without humor, nor some redeeming feature. That that face could smile, and perhaps even laugh, gave hope to Jem, who was doing his level best to look calm and competent, despite his anxiety.

"You've a letter, lad?"

"Yes, sir." Jem lowered his kit bag, and reached within his jacket and drew forth the folded and sealed sheet. For a moment he gazed at it, thinking of old Kebin Styles, his father's friend these so many years, who had drafted the letter this very day. That old Styles could know such a man as Master Terpin did not surprise Jem at all. They were of a kind, he could see now, strong and able, and each committed to the course he had steered in life.

He handed the letter over, watched as the Master's eyes appraised him a final time as he accepted it. "You are sixteen in years? You do not look it, lad. I'll say now that I'll not have a man younger aboard my vessel."

"I am almost seventeen," Jem returned, and found himself unable to keep a note of pride from his voice.

The crinkles about Master Terpin's eyes deepened for just a second, but no other line of his face gave away what he might be thinking.

"Oh, seventeen, then. A grown man, you are." That was said flatly, without humor; and then Master Terpin was using a finger to break and flick away the seal on the letter. He opened the twice-folded sheet with a brisk twist of his wrist and commenced to reading, while Jem waited nervously, trying not to fidget.

Such archaic forms of communication as a paper letter were new to Jem, but a custom for such situations as this, he had been assured. Old Kebin had said that the letter would be important, and Jem had guarded it within his coat all the way to the sea, aware of both its presence within his inner pocket, and its possible key to his future dreams. He was glad now to part with it, happy to pass its custody to the tall and fascinating man before him. Custom, of course, must be observed!

A great stretch of multi-paned window allowed in a vast view of the harbor beyond, and the many vessels of the sea tied up at the piers. One of them was surely Vespris, though the long and graceful lines of the vessels looked almost identical from where he stood, and he could not put a name to any one of them from that much of a distance. He had studied the vessels that went to sea to hunt orx, and among the two dozen that called Nocksic Bay home, Vespris was a name to be reckoned with. For his whole life he had heard of her adventures, and for his whole life he had dreamed of sailing in her.

The sea had always intrigued Jem, as had much of the lore surrounding it. Many were the times he had stood upon the bluff outside his father's home, and gazed out across the gray depths, wondering at the stories he had heard about the life that dwelt there. Many of those stories had come from Kebin Styles himself, and that the man was familiar with the mysteries of the world had intrigued Jem greatly. Surely the sea, whose depths were hidden from the eyes of men, must be even more mysterious than were the mountains of Merah, which surrounded the town of Nocksic Bay and guarded it from the northern winds, and the dangerous beasts to the south. The things that lived in those high places were not to be trifled with, either, holding their secrets close, and more than willing to defend them against the curious. Treading the high mountain places was a dangerous business, not for the meek at heart.

And yet, Jem loved the thrill of such exploration, and had loved to accompany his father as the man trapped and hunted the snowy peaks. The meat of siffle and ustric, hunted for the town's larders, had fed them all these years, while the soft, glowing pelts had provided extra funds to assist with life's expenses. The mountains favored no man, but they did respect those that could master their heights, and the wild and dangerous things that lived there.

The strangeness of the world had always been obvious to Jem, some sense within him knowing full well that the life of this world had been born of another nature than himself. The urge to know that nature more fully burned within him, a fire that, now that he was of age, could only be fed by going out into the world to see for himself what was there. He had been to the mountains, and seen many of their wonders first hand. And now the sea called, and the many places beyond the sea, upon which he would surely lay his eyes someday, if fortune was with him.

Master Terpin grunted, and this time his eyes crinkled appreciably. "Kebin Styles, is it?" The man gave a small laugh, and nodded. "There was a man with a good head on his shoulders! I am pleased to know that he is still about." Those gray eyes reappraised Jem then, and now there was an appreciation in them that had been lacking before. "Mister Styles would not be sending me a man he knew I could not use. You saw the hiring list at the Harbormaster's office?"

"Yes, sir."

"You were interested in the engineering assistant position, perhaps? Wanting to work with steam, are you?"

Jem cleared his throat, and firmed his resolution. "I was thinking more along the lines of a shotsman, sir."

"Were you, now?" That great stone face gave nothing away. "I have but one opening for that position, and I have a lad that has come before you."

For a moment Jem felt an intense disappointment. Someone had beaten him to the position!

"But, it is commonplace in such instances to try both men, and to choose the better from among you."

Jem gave a little gasp at that, and his heart bounced once at the reprieve. "I will not disappoint you, sir."

"No." The Master gave a nod, and tucked the letter into his jacket. "Come along, then. I am just heading back myself, after a fine meal. Always pays to put some land in the stomach last thing before heading to sea. The food aboard my vessel is as good as any; but most of our meals come from the sea, and few are those that can relish stonefish and gruff for weeks at a time."

Jem tried not to grin, but couldn't quite make it. "They are fine food fish, Master Terpin. I eat them regularly."

The man actually laughed. "Of course you do. But not every day, I'll wager. Prepared with the seasons and herbs of the land, and cooked over a riftwood fire, they are quite easy on the palate. But we carry a limited supply of tasty mountain meats, and they seem to go first from our stores. By the second month at sea, you will be eating mostly stonefish and gruff, and after the first week of that, tasting more of what nature here placed into these creatures, rather than what man has covered up with his culinary skills."

"I will do my best to manage," Jem offered.

Master Terpin seemed to like that. "Then let's be off."

They left the inn, and walked down the hill path towards the piers. Master Terpin was silent, but Jem had come to expect that from the man. Jem's father said that a quiet mouth usually meant an active mind, and that such a trait was never to be despised, for it was the active thinkers that propelled men forward on this world. Jem had seen that for himself in old Kebin, who had as fine a mind as Jem had ever encountered, and who had taught him nearly as much about life and the world as his own father.

"We are squatters here on Benteen," Kebin had reminded him, more than once. "Five hundred years since First Ship from Old Earth. We have made our way against a world that neither understands us nor accommodates our presence here. We are not of the nature of this world, and yet we have adapted to it as well as our science can provide, even down to being able to ingest the local foodstuffs. But never forget that the life here belongs here, and knows its place most thoroughly. Interlopers are not well tolerated, and only our tools and our intelligence have allowed us to find a place on this world. Never allow yourself to be caught without the tools of survival, Jem, and never once forget to use the intelligence that Mother Earth has given you."

Jem had found that to be good advice in the mountains, and he was sure it would apply just as well on the sea.

"Who is Mister Styles to you, if I may ask?" Master Terpin said then, breaking his silence. Jem looked up at the man; but the Master's eyes were forward, studying the ships arrayed along the piers ahead of them. Jem let his eyes momentarily follow the man's gaze, and again marveled at how many of the port's vessels happened to be to shore at one time. It happened every now and then, the purest of coincidences; but it was a grand sight to see the forest of masts towering above the sleek shapes of the clustered vessels. There were a half dozen ports along the coast of New Australia equal in size to Nocksic Bay; but few could boast the compliment of fine vessels and crews that were based here.

"He's my godfather, and the best friend of my own father."

The Master's eyes did briefly inspect him now. "He would be considerably older than the sire of one such as you."

Jem nodded. "He is. More like a grandfather, I suppose. Yet he and my father have been friends for longer than I have walked the world."

The Master grunted. "All of twenty years ago that I last saw him. I wondered what had become of the man. It is pleasing to know that he still regards me well enough to send along his godson for employment."

There was a sad note to that statement, somehow; but Jem felt it unwise to pry.

They continued down the winding hill road, and finally reached the wide stone street that coursed along the piers. It was crowded with wagons and men, and noisy with talk and laughter. One of the large wagons chuffed by them, and snorted as a release valve briefly let go a burst of steam into the air above. The smell of orx came to them then, as much a part of the wagon now from its many years of service hauling such loads as from the several tons of meat it now carried within its large icebox. It was a pleasant and enticing aroma, and Jem had to smile as the great wagon rolled on. This would be just one of many wagons so loaded this day. The town and the surrounds would be eating well for a time now, and the freeze lockers downtown would soon be stocked well enough to tide them over through the long winter to come.

A group of sailors led by a beefy man in bright clothing approached, and as they spied Master Terpin they all raised hands to wave. The group turned up one of the many paths towards the center of town, but the big man came on ahead and stopped before them.

"Master Terpin! It's good to see you again, sir."

His eyes briefly examined Jem, and he offered a smile and a nod, to which Jem responded in kind.

"Mister Landers." Again, Master Terpin's eyes crinkled in an almost-smile. "And how is the good ship Donnic these days?"

"Well, sir. That was our orx that just passed you in the wagon. We had a good voyage, despite the weather changes."

"I've heard of it. Early ice, they say."

"Yes. Some big bergs, too. The unusually warm summer calved quite a horde of them, all now southbound on the coastal current. But the big news is the early freeze up north. You are outward bound again?"

"Yes." The Master's eyes briefly scanned the gray skies, and he nodded. "About one voyage left until the winter layover."

"Master Danning agrees," Landers said. "Although perhaps a short voyage. The ice is on the move south a month early this year, and we figure there will only be two months of clear northern sea remaining. We are stocking now, and will be out to sea again on your heels, I'll wager." He frowned then. "A word of caution: the orx seem to be behaving oddly just now. We encountered far less of them alone than is normal, and our sonar gear twice detected large pods of them traveling together."

Master Terpin squinted at that. "Family groups?"

The other man looked unsettled. "Too large for a family. One group numbered some eighty of the beasts. Master Danning chose not to engage them."

Master Terpin's eyes managed now to look surprised. "That's a fair number. I would not have tried to engage them, either." He gave a small shake to his head. "Hard to imagine such a large group, traveling together. The belligerent nature of the beasts extends to even their own kind." He squinted at the man. "What area were you hunting this last voyage?"

"North, and above the middle of the continent. Along the ice pack. Twice we saw larger groups of orx on the sonar, and twice Master Danning chose to leave them. He said it was too risky to chase them down." He shrugged. "Our next voyage will be to the east, I think."

"Hmm. I am planning to go north and west this very voyage, today. Thanks for the word of caution."

Mister Lander's looked hesitant a moment, and then leaned forward. "Have you heard about Chregar?"
Master Terpin's bottom lip briefly thrust outwards. "That's Master Gwinn Portland's vessel, is it not?"

"It was," Landers agreed. "We met up with Nortis on our return voyage and paused to trade gossip. They were on their way back down from the same area we were hunting, but somewhat to the east. Nortis is based down in Port Arthur, as you know. Master Kendry of that vessel informed us that they had found one of Chregar's lifeboats adrift, amongst a field of wreckage on the surface that covered quite a spread of sea."

"Lost?" Master Terpin's eyes widened just enough to hint at surprise. "Portland was too good a ship handler to be taken out by sea or ice."

Landers shook his head. "Not storm, nor bergs, sir. The evidence points to an attack. Master Kendry thinks the orx destroyed the vessel."

Jem gasped, and Master Terpin's eyes narrowed. "I've never heard of such a thing. What did the crew in the lifeboat say about it?"

"There was no one in the lifeboat, sir. Nortis searched the sea about most thoroughly, but no trace of the crew was found. The lifeboat they did find was peppered with wounds, like those made by orx lances. And there was...blood. Quite a lot of it."

"And no call for aid? Chregar could not have been so far north as to be beyond com range of everyone."

"No record of any call, distress, or otherwise, was logged."

Once, in the past, Benteen had been circled by a ring of satellites, and communication on every stretch of sea assured. But time had failed those devices, one by one; and once the ships of space had stopped coming from Old Earth, there were no more to be had. These days, the often turbid atmosphere of this world played games with transmissions; but even so, few ships ranged so far to sea as to be out of contact with even other vessels out there with them.

"I cannot believe that Chregar was destroyed completely," Master Terpin repeated, giving a slight shake of his head. "Not an ironwood hull. And I am having a hard time believing that anything that happened to her was through deliberate action on the part of the orx. The lifeboat I can understand. Orx have been known to attack crew onboard a ship. A lifeboat would be easy meat for one of them."

"Yes." Landers leaned even closer. "Chregar's transponder signal has not been located. But the sea there is three kilometers deep, too. If she went down, there will be no recovering the data recorder on that one, unless it can free itself from the wreckage and make its way to the surface."

For a moment no one spoke. Jem turned over in his mind what he had just heard, unable to believe it himself. An attack! Orx were notorious fighters, and the amazingly tough, bony lances at the ends of their four tentacles had killed more than one man in the battle to secure the monsters for butchering. But they were no match for a modern orxhunter, which vessel was sufficiently armed to handle several of the beasts at a time. Orx often traveled in mated pairs and with offspring, and Jem had read enough on how the beasts hunted to know their abilities. Their size, power, and speed, as well as their spear-tipped tentacles, made them efficient hunters in their own right, and their abilities to defend themselves from capture, not to be despised. orx, or even several, against the harpoon guns and explosive stunners of an orxhunter? It seemed impossible to think that the beasts could prevail, let alone destroy an entire vessel. And certainly not one made of ironwood!

Master Terpin closed his hands into fists and placed them on his hips. "I would have to see that to believe it. The largest orx ever hauled in was well short of twenty-five tons; the displacement of vessels such as ours is over nine-hundred tons. The ironwood hulls are impervious even to collisions with ice, and even a full speed strike by one of the beasts would not so much as mar them. And, once harpooned and drogued and covered with shockers, I cannot see even the meanest of the beasts able to take on an entire ship, let alone sink her, even if it did somehow survive."

Mister Landers licked his lips, and nodded. "Master Danning was also of a mind as you. Yet Master Kendry came to the conclusion that a great number of orx attacked Chregar, and overwhelmed her crew. Our own eyes have seen the beasts traveling in number this last voyage. Eighty of the beasts attacking your ship would be of a different nature, don't you think?"

Master Terpin gave a little nod of his head. "Perhaps. But orx have never been pack animals before now. What would make them do this?"

"Maybe --" Jem spoke up before thinking, and immediately closed his mouth. This was not his conversation.

But Master Terpin turned to him. "Go ahead, Jem-lad. Every man on my vessel can speak his piece."

Jem gently bit his lip, and then nodded. "I was just thinking that...perhaps the orx were banding together to defend themselves against us. Humans, I mean." The idea, now out in the open, sounded outlandish, even to Jem's ears.

The tall man stared at him a moment, and then surprised Jem by nodding. "Stranger things have happened, Jem-lad. I have pursued my share of the devils in my career, and they are not easy prey. They are wily animals, and I have had them escape from me more than once. But--" He frowned. "There have been others in the past that have argued that orx are more intelligent than we know for certain. It's a different kind of smarts than we have ourselves; but smarts they are, and my own experiences tell me so." He leaned down then. "But I would ask you not to share this theory aboard Vespris just now, please. Not that no one has heard of it before, but a debate on whether or not orx are animals, or more, is not something we can afford to have on the last voyage of a season. The port needs what we return in order to weather the cold months, and crew that are in doubt have a tough time at their jobs. So let it be, at least for now."

Mister Landers nodded. "Our Master Danning has also asked the crew to be silent on this matter while we are in port. He has gone to the Harbormaster's office to make his report, however, and all masters currently in port and at sea will surely be warned of the possible danger." He sighed. "I'm certain this will have the science people down on us again."

To this, Master Terpin actually smiled. "I've never met a scientist that did not need to eat, just as the rest of us. We are limited in the species we can devour on this world, and removing the orx from the larder would put a serious dent in our winter supplies. And it's the only sea life on Benteen that actually tastes good all on its own, without being hidden beneath spices and herbs. The loss of this meat from our diet would create quite a stir at the dinner table, not to even mention the affect on the economy. So let's not have the science folk getting any more up in arms now than they have in the past."

Mister Landers smiled. "I will not be the one to encourage them. They will investigate this matter, of that I am certain. But, perhaps, with winter soon to come, they will not investigate it too closely. As you say, they have to fill their bellies, as well."

Master Terpin considered that, and nodded. "If it were found that orx are too smart to be animals, it would be our duty to stop the hunting of them. But many a beast is a crafty hunter and fighter, without being human under the skin. I would need it proved to me, to be sure."

"I, as well, would see the need to cease hunting them," Mister Landers admitted. "It would not be the first time our kind have found others among the stars that viewed the world about them with reason." He sighed. "Well, I have tasks to complete before we sail."

"As do I. It is always good to see you, Mister Landers. Should you ever tire of life in Donnic, I would be pleased to find a spot for you again."

The man favored Master Terpin with a last smile, tossed a nod Jem's way, and turned to go. "It is always wonderful to see you again, sir. I will tell Master Danning that I spoke with you."

"Good voyage to you," Master Terpin answered, laying a hand on Jem's shoulder and starting him off. "'Ware the ice, and the waves, and the denizens of the deeps."

"Same to you, sir." Landers gave a little wave, and then headed off after his men.

Jem and Master Terpin moved on down the wide seaside street. "I don't need to tell you not to repeat that rumor about Chregar, do I, Jem-lad? I will tell the crew what is needed at the proper time."

"Yes, sir. I don't believe I was paying attention to what Mister Landers was saying at all."

The master gave a small grunt of approval."You've a good head of your own, Jem-lad. I'm sure Master Kendry reported this incident immediately from sea, but in an encrypted transmission. So the Harbormaster will have knowledge of it already, and the wheels will already have been turning on this for some time. I am interested to see what they want to do about it."

"You think they'll want to investigate, sir?"

"I know they will." The hand on Jem's shoulder gave a little squeeze, and then withdrew. "Will you accept another position on my ship if the shotsman's position does not go to you? I do have need of an engineering assistant. And a trainee is better than none at all. My Chief Engineer, Mister Sharples, has been at me about this for some time now."

"What happened to the other assistant?" Jem asked, automatically. "I mean...I have no background in engineering sir." And no desire to be confined belowdecks while the action is taking place above!

This time, Master Terpin actually favored him with a smile. "Every man starts someplace, lad. Jak Buell, who was engineer's assistant until this last voyage, accepted a Chief Engineer's slot on Lightbringer. He began aboard my ship as a trainee to the cargo officer. So you see that a man may move about, and wind up far from where he began. To my eyes, Mister Buell has done well for himself."

"Yes, sir." Jem understood what he was being asked now. Did he wish to go to sea, or not? Or, would he be stubborn, and lose a chance at a permanent berth on Vespris just because the opening he wanted was not available now?

He looked up at the stone face of the man, and smiled. "I would be pleased to start anywhere, Master Terpin."

The man nodded. "Good choice. So we will try you alongside Mister Cyrus for the position of shotsman, and should that one not favor you this time, my Mister Sharples will be a happy man."

Finally, Vespris came into view. For such a storied vessel, the actuality was a bit of a letdown. Jem was not sure what he had expected, but the vessel turned out to look exactly like every other orxhunter tied up along the piers. Long and lean, her hull of gray ironwood; a bit of superstructure aft; three tall, self-standing masts of carbon fiber; and a slim black funnel thrust upwards between the main and mizzen masts.

But as they drew closer, and Jem's eyes traveled along the rails at the main deck, he spied the muzzles of the harpoon guns, eight to each side, long and slim, with a deadly air about them that could not be denied. A thrill ran through him at the sight, and he could imagine standing behind the control shield for one bank of these guns, watching the displays as the underwater sounding gear tracked the movement of their prey, while the powered mounts of the weapons moved in concert with the motion of ship upon the sea to keep their deadly loads aimed true.

A shotsman needed to understand what the displays were telling him, needed to know when to deploy shockers, or drogues, or long lances with their barbed tips and their sturdy lines, which would bind the prey to the vessel with unbreakable carbon fiber filaments, cutting off any chance of escape. The skill of an orxhunter's shotsmen could mean the difference between a hold full of profitable meat for the port's winter lockers, and time wasted in hunting down elusive prey. On a good voyage, an orxhunter might encounter orx only a half-dozen times close enough to the surface for capture to begin. They needed to be quick and accurate at those moments, or the chance could be lost.

And still, all that Jem really knew about what a shotsman did as duty was what he had learned from old Kebin Styles, and his small library of video texts. That man had held many different positions aboard orxhunters, and under several different masters. That he had served at some point with Master Terpin was certain, although Mister Styles seldom spoke of that duty in detail.

But that he held a deep respect for the man had been plain.

They ascended the boarding stairs, and met the master-of-the-watch at the top. He was a cheerful looking lad a little taller than Jem, and not many years older, with a shock of unruly red hair and bright, inquisitive green eyes. He gave Jem a once-over inspection, and then nodded at the master. "Good to have you back, sir. We've completed stowing provisions and are buttoned up for sea."

"Good job, Mister MacAfee. Has everyone returned from town?"

The man briefly consulted a small, flat pad he held in one hand, ran his fingertip down the softly glowing face of the device. "I was pretty sure that Mister Majors and Mister Unguda were still ashore sir. That is so, as well as Mister Sharples."

Master Terpin's head cocked to one side at the last name. "Mister Sharples is ashore? He knows we sail at fourteen-hundred hours."

The redhead nodded. "Some part he was waiting on for the number six intake pump cooling assembly came in at the machinist's. He ran to fetch it. Said it was about time."

"Ah. That makes sense." Master Terpin again put his hand on Jem's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "This is Mister Jemya Hanlon. Jem to his friends and shipmates. He will be joining us for this voyage, and, I hope, permanently thereafter. Add his name to the crew listing as a trainee, and begin his pay and profit-sharing immediately."

"Yes, sir." Mister MacAfee tapped the screen on his pad a few times, then held it up and took Jem's image. Then he smiled at Jem, and nodded. "Welcome aboard, Mister Hanlon."

"Thank you." Jem couldn't help smiling broadly. It was now official. He was crew!

Master Terpin left him then, saying he had preparations to make before the ship sailed, and that he would see Jem again later. He placed Jem in MacAfee's custody, instructing the man to show Jem to his berth once the others had come back aboard and the access stairway had been retracted. The redhead grinned at Jem, and nodded. "I'll take good care of him, sir."

Jem felt a bout of shyness overtake him, and for a moment he was silent after the master had left them. MacAfee resumed scanning the pier and the cargo holding areas, and watching the crowds that moved along the seaside street. The redhead was a little taller than Jem, and older, and had the look about him of someone confident in what he did.

I want to look that way, someday, he thought.

Jem cleared his throat. "So...what are your real duties, Mister MacAfee? Surely there is no need of this sort of watch once Vespris is underway."

The man grinned at him. "No. And my name is Kel, to my shipmates. I'm the ship's ordnance master." He laid a hand on the railing, gave it a fond pat. "Standing watch is a port formality - a tradition from Old Earth, and a very old one. Vespris can detect anyone long before they are close enough to board her. But having someone to meet in person all those who wish to come and go from a sea vessel is a formality that has maintained for over twenty centuries that I know of, and probably comes from well before that. I often stand the watch when we port here, because I have no family in town to visit. I'm from Alastar Cove, originally."

Jem frowned, reviewing the map of the small northern continent that was home to all the settlers from Old Earth. "That's in the south of the land, isn't it, Kel?"

"Yes. We've not the winters you have here, but the place is overrun with pup tigers and sabre bulls. I got tired of living inside the wall, and yearned for a place that was more open."

"You've family back home?"

"Oh, sure. My parents are both on defense duty. My little brother, Cana, will follow into that, I suppose. I wanted something different, I guess." Kel smiled around at the ship and the docks, and then the distant mountains. "I've had no regrets at all."

Jem pursed his lips. "And your family?"

"They miss me, but I think they all understand. Takes a particular sort to be content living within a high wall, with jungle all about, and beasts that passed from Old Earth with the dinosaurs roaming every which way you look."

"Too cold for those beasts up here," Jem said. "And they cannot cross the Barrier Range, anyway. But we have our own share of dangers, in the mountains, though much smaller than what you know. Still, they are perilous, if one goes unprepared."

"Oh, I know. There is a siffle likeness in the museum back home. Not a beast I would care to meet up with during the bright daytime, let alone at night."

"My father hunts them," Jem offered. "He's a meat supplier. But he wastes nothing, if he can help it. The pelts also bring good money."

Kel nodded. "No different than we do here, with orx. It's the way of this world, hunter and prey. The other continents, along the equator, are nearly impossible to visit due to the things that live there. Had not this northern continent been here, I doubt humans would have stayed on Benteen at all."

Jem considered that, but then nodded. His father and old Kebin had both expressed that same opinion at one time or another. What had Kebin called the settlers? Interlopers? Surely, humans had not come to Benteen as conquerors. This was a world to be endured, not conquered.

It did not take long for Jem to decide that he liked Kel, and the knowledge that he had already found one friend aboard ship relaxed him. They talked, and Kel filled him in on the crew of the Vespris, who seemed a varied lot. With Jem aboard, the vessel was now one over its full compliment of ten. Jem and someone named Nico Cyrus were the two new trainees. The starboard shotsman, whom one of them would be replacing, was still aboard; but this was her last voyage, after which she was off to honor a marriage bond. One of the trainees would take her place.The unfilled assistant engineer's slot loomed ahead for the other trainee, and Jem was firm on the idea that it would not be him. This Nico Cyrus, whoever he was, had better just watch out!

The three missing crew members returned, one at a time. First to arrive was a lean man with gray at his temples, carrying a small, sealed plastic box under one arm. This proved to be Mister Sharples, the Chief Engineer, who checked in with the watch, briefly smiled and nodded at Jem, and then hastened belowdecks. Next to return was a slim young man with wildly curly black hair, who ambled down the wide seaside street with the air of one who owned everything in sight, and was happy with the world.

Kel introduced this latest returnee as Pora Unguda, who was cargo master aboard Vespris. His was the job of both seeing that Vespris was properly provisioned for sea, and that any catch she made was properly stowed in the ship's freezers. While at sea, he worked hand-in-hand with Deera Stanper, the catch supervisor, whose job it was to remove every inedible portion of an orx before the rest was neatly carved into chunks and stowed away. The automated equipment that did most of the job of carving up an orx was a marvel to behold, and this Deera Stanper was something of an artist in her work, according to Kel.

"Ha! But she is not just an artist, she is a true butcher!" Unguda said, smiling, when he heard that. At Jem's raised eyebrows, the man just grinned. "Have you ever carved up fifteen tons of meat into appealing steaks?"

Jem had to admit that he had not.

"Ha! Then I rest my case!" Unguda waved and proceeded below, and Jem found himself smiling after the man. "He's...interesting."

Kel nodded. "And an artist in his own right. Placing cargo on a sea-going vessel is a little bit of an art itself, especially when done on the fly, and Mister Unguda is an expert. He is the only cargo master I know who works without an assistant. He obviously doesn't need one, either. Vespris is one of the best trimmed ships I have ever sailed in. You will never find her listing, nor popping her bow, even when we are hauling aboard many tons of orx. Master Terpin demands a centered bubble, he does."

The last to return was Til Majors, the port shotsman. He was tall and gaunt, and reminded Jem on first sight of the fellow at the port morgue responsible for interring the bodies of the deceased. But that impression was brief, as the man had a ready smile, and turned it on Jem as they were introduced. "Well, now, fresh blood! I've met your competitor, Mister Cyrus, and I think we're going to have an interesting contest here. A very good thing, actually."

Jem was a little intimidated by the man's energy, but was unable not to smile at the obvious humor in his eyes. "And why is that?"

Mister Majors bent down a little, and lowered his voice. "Well it's my nature to love good sport. I can tell much about an orx by the way he moves in the sea. You and Mister Cyrus both have the look of fighters. No matter which of you takes the spot, we will then have one more extra on board that has had training in pursuit and capture. If some of the things I heard in town are accurate, we may have need of a third man at some point. Just a hunch, mind you. Nothing more."

Kel laughed. "And what did you hear in town?"

"Oh...this and that. Nothing to be concerned about yet. I have a feeling the master will have better knowledge than mine, so let's just wait and see." Majors winked at Jem, and proceeded past him. "Glad to have you aboard, Mister Hanlon. Let the games begin!"

Jem stared after the man, again smiling. "I am starting to wonder if Vespris has been to sea for too long."

Kel's eyes filled with smiles. "Humor is an asset aboard a ship of the sea, Jem. You will find that our Master Terpin has a fine eye - and ear - for selecting those crew with a good nature. Vespris is a completely contented ship, which is not always the case on other vessels."

Jem nodded, actually pleased to hear that. "Good. Then I will fit right in here."

The watchman cast a last look about the pier and the street, and nodded to himself. "Well, I guess that's that." He lifted his pad and spoke into it. "Master Terpin? All crew accounted for. Shall I bring in the access stairs?"

Jem could not hear the answer, but the look of surprise on Kel's face drew his immediate attention. He knew better to ask what had been said, but did look at the watchman curiously when the conversation was over.

Kel shrugged. "The master says we're waiting on someone else."

They talked a while longer, until Jem became aware of someone hustling along the pier towards them. He and Kel both watched the newcomer approach, until it was sure that the person was heading for their ship. Whoever it was was dressed for cold weather, with hood up and hands gloved, and had a large duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Jem could not see the face within the hood, and watched curiously as the new arrival moved along toward them.

"I think I have an idea what this is about," Kel said softly, as the person reached the base of the boarding stairs and threw back the hood on the parka. It was a young lady - a girl, to Jem's eyes, for she could hardly be but a few years older than he was. She tossed the duffel off her shoulder and stood it before her, and smiled up at them. "Permission to come aboard?"

Kel nodded. "Step right up,"

The girl grabbed her duffel and wrestled it up the stairs before her. Jem automatically reached out to help her as she arrived at the small landing at the top of the stairs, but she plunked the bag down and grinned at him. "Thanks, but I've got it. It's not heavy, just cumbersome. I kind of just jammed a lot of what I would need into it and ran down here. Hope I haven't held you up."

Kel shook his head, and also smiled. "No. We just had the last of our own people back from shore. We're not scheduled to leave until fourteen hundred hours. That's still" -- he glanced down at his pad --" twenty minutes."

The girl blew out a relieved breath, and unfastened her coat and dug into an inside pocket. She produced a flat case, which she opened to display a card with a tiny OLED film screen on it that showed her likeness from all angles, and introduced her as a member of the government of Knocksic Bay. "I'm Nita Frees, from the Section on Marine Biology. Master Terpin knows why I'm here."

"Right," Kel nodded. "He told me to expect you. We have several spare cabins - once I'm cleared here, I'll show you to one."

Nita turned and smiled at Jem. "If you're busy, perhaps this nice young man could show me, so that I can unpack before we leave shore?" She laughed. "It will minimize the wrinkles, I'm sure."

Jem grinned. "I just came aboard, myself, Miss Frees. Someone would have to show me where to show you to."

Kel held up his pad. "Give me just a second to check in with Master Terpin, and I'll show the both of you!"

The girl nodded, and turned back to Jem. "Then you can introduce yourself, perhaps? I like to be comfortable with people I work with. Of course, I'll just call you 'hey you', if you like--"

Jem felt his face get warm, but could only smile. This girl certainly had a winning personality! "Um, I'm Jemya Hanlon, and I'm an apprentice trainee. My friends call me Jem, though, if you don't mind."

"Oh? I have an Uncle Jemya, and he loves his name. But it's your right, and of course I'll call you Jem."

"You can call me Kel," the watchman interjected, just a little too quickly. He looked surprised at himself, and he and Jem grinned at each other.

"You always fluster the people you meet like this?" Kel asked Nita, sighing.

She smiled, her eyes bright. "Well, not always. But I do try."

The watchman checked back with Master Terpin, and then touched the screen of his pad. There was a small hiss of air, and the end of the boarding stairs lifted from the pier until they were parallel with the deck of the ship. The handrails laid down as the stairs came up, and the whole thing drew back into a slot under the landing, and Jem heard the cover slide into place below. The ship's railing slid sideways across the gap, and only the small jut of the landing was left to even indicate that this was a place used to come and go.

The watchman nodded. "Now, if you'll both come with me, I'll show you to your quarters."

Jem picked up his own kit bag, and Nita again tossed hers up on her shoulder, and the two of them followed Kel back along the deck to the superstructure near the rear of the ship. This was where the ship's command center was located, and two weather doors now faced them. The top half of each door was transparent. One obviously led directly into the superstructure, where the ship's bridge and offices were located; the other opened on a stairwell, which led down into the vessel's innards. Kel chose the latter, and they descended a deck, and found themselves before a corridor that led towards the rear of the ship.

Kel waved them into it. "We're all quartered here, save for the master and Mister Sharples. Master Terpin's quarters are abaft the bridge, and the Chief Engineer has quarters on the machine deck." He laughed. "But you'd never know it, because no matter where you happen to be aboard Vespris, eventually you'll turn around and there one of them will be standing, watching what you're doing."

"I've never been aboard a ship quite this big," Nita offered. "Our research ships are smaller, two-masters. Usually just me and a few techs." She smiled. "I think I'm going to find this interesting."

"Well, I hope so," Kel said, trying not to smile too much. "It's been interesting for us, so far."

Nita smiled at him, but said no more. Jem was trying to control is own smile, sensing that Kel was smitten with the girl; but already understanding that Nita liked to play, and that it would take much more than a smile and a few kind words to get close to her. Probably, she was one in love with her work, and that would hold her until some point in her life when she felt a need for more. But her sense of humor and her bright eyes were sure to make her welcome aboard Vespris in the days to come.

"We'll put you in here, Miss Frees," Kel said, stopping at the first cabin on the left. He pushed the door open, and Jem stretched his neck to see within. He was immediately struck by the view: the entire outer bulkhead of the cabin seemed to be transparent, giving a wonderful view of the bay and the sea beyond. Amazing, considering that the exterior of Vespris looked unblemished by ports or windows.

But Nita seemed unimpressed, and Jem supposed she was used to this from her travels. But he was not, and turned to Kel. "The view is stunning."

"Oh, they're all like this. It's one way, of course, and no one can see in from outside."

"I noticed the hull was smooth and without features."

"Yes. Ironwood is really some amazing stuff. It's stronger than the finest steel, and you have to cut it and work it with high-powered lasers. Intense heat makes it malleable without becoming brittle, and they kind of sculpt these hulls out of the bole of one massive tree in the yards. If you bombard ironwood with extremely intense white light, it becomes transparent on the side bombarded, and they just mask the interior sections of hull except where the windows are to be, and bombard the entire interior with light at once. Makes shipfitting a real dream."

Nita squeezed her duffel through the door and tossed it on one of the bunks. There were two, one to each side of the doorway, with an open area at the end of them before the window that held a table and chairs, a small sofa, a large vid, and a data terminal. Drawers built in beneath the bunks, and cabinets on the walls above, assured that each occupant had plenty of storage space. A door on one side wall opened on a small head with shower, and a built-in next to that door held a small clothes washer and dryer, one stacked atop the other.

Jem grinned. "All the comforts of home."

Nita smiled at the accommodations, and turned back to face them. "You didn't say I was getting the Master's cabin."

Kel smiled. "They're all like this. Bigger than you're used to?"

"Definitely. The cabins in our research ships just offer a bunk and a head, and that's pretty much it. Everything else is shared."

Kel shrugged. "You people operate on a government budget. We don't." He turned to Jem, and gave him a gentle push back towards the corridor. "Come on, Jem. I'll take you to your berth."

Nita reached out and stopped them. "Can I connect to the data web using a standard interface?"

"Yes. You've already been placed on the roster and been given clearance. If you need anything else, you can com the master directly, or even call me, if it's something small you want."

Nita's eyebrows went up, and Kel immediately reddened. "Uh...I mean, if it is something you need that does not require the Master's permission."

The girl nodded, her humor evident. "Thanks, Kel. And Jem. Nice to meet you both. I'm looking forward to an interesting voyage."

She let them exit, and then closed the door behind them.

Jem smiled at Kel. "Nice, huh?"

Kel briefly grinned, but immediately covered it by clearing his throat and rubbing at his nose. "She's okay. Come along, mate."

They proceeded down the corridor past several more cabins, and then Kel stopped before one and turned to Jem. "We have a slight problem here, okay? There are only ten cabins here. Seven are filled with permanent crew, and now one with Miss Frees. The ninth has Mister Cyrus in it. Once Miss Omari leaves her position as starboard shotsman, one of you will take her cabin. But for the moment, we're short one cabin."

Jem frowned. "If the master and the chief engineer each have cabins elsewhere, and you are short an engineering assistant, there should still be one cabin open."

Kel grinned. "Well, yes. There should."

He reached out and opened the door to the cabin next to them, and pointed inside. Jem leaned in, and gasped. The cabin was piled high with boxes and cylindrical containers, secured in place by some type of nearly invisible webbing. "What...what is all this?"

Kel laughed. "A little of this, and a little of that. Everyone on board has their extra stuff stowed here. Once we get under way, I'll put out a call on the ship's web for everyone to reclaim their belongings, and then we'll have a cabin for you."

Jem smiled, and pointed at the deck in the corridor. "At least it's carpeted. But I still hope it's softer than it looks."

Kel's eyes showed he positively loved that. "Oh, not at all, Mister Hanlon. I hope you won't mind, but we'll put you in with Mister Cyrus until this cabin comes available."

Jem blinked, and felt surprise at that. In with the competition!

Kel, who was watching him, frowned and tilted his head back. "Problem?"

"No. I just feel it a little strange to be living with a man I am trying to beat out of a position aboard ship."

"Ah. I didn't think of that. Well, we'll get your cabin cleaned out in double time. Can you make do for the time being?"

Jem smiled. "Absolutely."

Kel nodded. They crossed the corridor, and the man briefly rapped on a cabin door. A voice from within called for them to enter, and Kel pushed the door in.

A man was standing before the large viewing window, gazing outwards, his hands clasped together behind his back. He was slight of figure, like Jem, and no taller at all. His clothing was much as Jem's own, warm, sturdy, and utilitarian. He turned as they came in, and Jem's eyes locked upon the other's face.

A man, yes, but a very young one, just as Jem was himself. His hair was darker than Jem's, and slightly longer, though neatly kept. His features were pleasant enough, even handsome, and Jem immediately felt a sense of disappointment. It would have been much easier had Nico Cyrus appeared rough, untrustworthy, and callous of nature. But such people were rare in Nocksic Bay, and upon Benteen in general. A hard life that required the cooperation of all had weeded out what few negative souls the Colonial Authority's genetics people had missed in selecting the first to settle this new world, and Jem should have known that a man like Master Terpin would not bring someone like that aboard his ship, even had he found him. Let alone try him out for an important post like shotsman! That Mister Cyrus was probably as decent a fellow as everyone else Jem had already met aboard Vespris - and upon Benteen, itself - almost ensured that competing against him would be something less than fun.

The other's eyes touched upon Kel's, and then moved immediately to Jem. Jem felt them examine him, looking for chinks in his armor; and then a small expression of what could only be disappointment appeared on the other's face. Perhaps he had been looking for the same distasteful markers in Jem?

Cyrus strode forward then, his hand extended towards Jem. "I'm Nico Cyrus, and I'm pleased to meet you. You can call me Nico, if you like."

Jem looked down at the hand, and then up at the face, as he accepted it into his own. They looked at each other in silence a moment as they shook, and then Jem found himself smiling. "I'm Jemya Hanlon, but only my mother calls me Jemya, and only when she is annoyed with me. My friends call me Jem."

Cyrus grinned, and nodded. "Our Mister MacAfee here quietly informed me a short time ago that I would have company, and also some competition. But I am up to it, if you are."

Jem shot Kel an amazed look. He had not seen nor heard the watchman communicate with anyone but the master!

"Hey, the watch looks out for the ship, and everyone in her," Kel said, smiling and letting his eyes roll up to the overhead. "Just doing my job, mate."

Jem sighed, relieved that his competition with Cyrus...with Nico, would not be a bombshell to the other boy. "Well...thanks for that, actually." He smiled at Nico. "I had no idea I had been preceded, until Master Terpin informed me. And as he made no mention of you being aware of me, I was afraid it would be a shock to you to learn that you had a...a rival for the post."

Nico watched him a moment more, and then smiled, himself. "There are two openings aboard Vespris, and two of us. I fear that one of us will be disappointed, but only slightly, in comparison to the disappointment that would come with being dropped ashore when we return."

"You'll take the assistant engineering spot, if it comes to you?" Jem asked.

"Yes. If it comes to me." Nico grinned. "We're a long way from there, however."

Jem laughed. "I will also be graceful, if the time comes to be so."

Kel blew a little burst of air between his lips. "Well, that was easy enough. I wasn't sure, you know." He nodded, and turned to go. "I'd better get to my station. We'll be under way shortly. You gentleman make yourself at home, get to know each other. I doubt that Master Terpin will begin your instruction before we get well away from shore, and you've had at least a couple of good night's sleep under your belt and shown you're comfortable at sea."

Jem blinked at that. "Comfortable at sea?"

Nico nodded. "Some few people do not do well with the motion of the ship. Inner ear, balance thing, where the ears sense motion but the eyes do not. Makes some people sick to their stomachs."

Jem's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"

"No." Kel shook his head. "It's rare, but it happens."

Jem recalled all the times he had been a passenger in a winter sled, bundled up in the rear cabin against the fierce winds and snow, and unable to see where they were going. He had always found the motion of the sled comforting, a far cry from disturbing. The idea that it could make him sick, instead, was surprising. "I don't think I'll have a problem with motion sickness...I hope." He grinned. "Only one way to find out, I guess."

"There's the spirit!" Kel nodded a last time at them, and left, closing the cabin door.

Nico watched Jem a moment longer, and then sighed. "This would be so much easier if you were some evil bastard like in the web serials."

Jem laughed. "Sorry. The evil bastard part got left out of me, somewhere."

"I know. I can tell. You're tough, but...nice."

Jem raised his eyebrows at that; but the other boy just grinned, and waved expansively at the transparent wall of their cabin. "Come, shipmate, and we'll watch the gentle shores disappear behind us."

One of the bunks had obviously been sat upon, and a door was ajar in one of the cabinets behind it. Jem could see clothing stacked within. He tossed his kit bag on the opposite bunk, and followed Nico over to the transparent hull.

Beyond the nearly invisible section of hull, the sky and the sea were gray, though neither uniformly so. Tiny whitecaps paraded about the surface of the bay, suggesting that the wind had come up a bit since Jem had boarded. The lowering sky mixed some lighter and whiter swirls among the gray and black, and also looked to be moving more quickly than earlier.

"Sea's coming up," Nico said. "We'll do well to get out of the bay before that storm hits."

Jem nodded. It didn't take an old hand to see that the weather was turning. In the mountains, such a sky would be a warning to take cover, that snow was on the way. The sea was slightly different, but not so much that the warning was not still apparent.

Beneath their feet, the steam turbines of Vespris, heretofore idling only with enough speed to power her generators, throbbed briefly as they spun up; and then they settled into a quiet and reassuring hum. A gentle shudder coursed through the vessel as she wakened, and the view beyond the bulkhead changed as she moved away from the pier and towards the sea.

And, for whatever future lay there, Jem thought. He glanced briefly at Nico, and could not help but to smile.

For whatever future lay there, for them both.

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