Journey Beyond the Sea

by Geron Kees

Chapter 2

The steam turbines were silent, the ship moving forward on the wind. Above Jem, the great square-rigged panels - looking like one massive sail on each mast because of the lack of space between them - strained at the rigid elliptical carbon fiber yards, propelling Vespris forward. Because there was no rigging, each carbon fiber mast turned effortlessly upon deck and keel bearings, allowing for precise movement of the vessel, controlled by one man in the virtual sea enclosure within the ship's bridge. Currently, and for most every hunt, that man was Master Terpin.

Silence was important for hunting orx. The creatures communicated with sound in a wide range of frequencies, and had a keen sense of hearing. The completely unnatural sounds of human ship engines spooked them every time. Once Vespris had passed Point Taca, the northernmost tip of New Australia, the engines had been silenced and the more than ample winds given charge of moving the vessel northward. And cold winds they were, too.

The three of them were wearing lightweight thermal gear, which was rated to protect them against the most frigid air that Benteen had to offer. The northern pole was far beyond the edge of the seasonal ice pack expansion, and far beyond where a vessel like Vespris might ever travel; but those that had first surveyed this new world had planned for every contingency. Light parkas over their work suits, and nearly invisible thermal face masks that did not interfere with speech, and which warmed the air they would breathe, ensured that they could focus on the job at hand.

"The winds are mostly with us at the moment," Mya Omari told them, waving a hand up at the sails above them. She was a small woman, with a cheerful face and intense, dark eyes. Jem and Nico had joined her within the semi-circular, transparent shield located amidships on the starboard side of Vespris, and before the controls that activated and guided her tools for hunting and capturing orx. "But Vespris and her kind are capable upwind clippers. The furling sails are stored within the masts, and can be deployed to full sail in three minutes, allowing the vessel to go from prowl to hunt very quickly."

She turned and waved the same hand outward, at the relatively calm sea, and the stretch of brightly lit sky along the horizon beneath its almost perpetual cap of darker clouds. "Normally, we would still be running on steam for quite some time beyond this point; but realistic conditions are required for demonstrating what you'll be facing in a true hunt, and so we are moving on the wind this morning."

"I know that orx are fast in the water, with their jets," Nico said, looking up at the sails. "I'm surprised a sailing vessel can keep up with them."

Mya smiled. "Orx draw in water and expel it under pressure. But they're sprinters, not runners. They can do bursts of twelve knots; but on the average, eight to ten is their maximum speed, and their average prowling speed is even slower. And the larger they are, the slower they are, too. Vespris can hit thirty five knots on her turbines, and nineteen under sail. Giving chase is not a problem for us."

She made a gentle gesture at the controls, and the transparent shield before them illuminated, showing a complex, multi-colored view. "The first orx hunters had an advantage over us, in that they still had access to the scanners available at the time. After the ships stopped coming from Earth, those units eventually fell into disrepair, and the manufacturing technology we have locally was not up to the challenge of duplicating them. This view of the ocean beneath is provided by a multi-frequency sonar array, an older and simpler technology, but a well-developed one. The display uses grayscale and color to provide real-time images from the processed signals, and once you learn how things look, you will quickly know what it is you are seeing."

"I know a little bit about this already," Jem said. "My godfather owned a number of visual manuals on this subject, which I have studied." He pointed at the screen. "Those little green clouds, that look like bubbles - they're schools of fish, aren't they?"

Mya smiled. "Yes. Those are stonefish. The system not only images, but employs habit and action profiles to determine what sort of marine life you are viewing. Stone fish are always green."

"What is the accuracy level of the shading?" Nico asked.

"I have found it to be one hundred percent accurate, although I have heard from others of the occasional glitch."

Jem laughed. "And what color are orx? I would guess they are red."

"Good guess." Mya nodded approvingly. "You will always get a little audio signal when the system detects orx--" she reached forward and laid a finger against a blue box at the base of the screen --"that sounds like this."

A chirping sound came to their ears, more than loud enough to be heard over the background sounds of wind and waves. "So it's not like you have to stand here and continually watch the display," she finished.

"Master Terpin sees what you see, on the bridge?" Nico asked.

"He can. He has a wide-field virtual display before him at the helm, which provides both visual and radar imaging of our surface surroundings. There are insets at the bottom left and right of his view, displaying the same information that we see at these stations. But the location of orx are displayed within his own navigation view, below the plane of the ocean's surface, and he is more focused on guiding the vessel in pursuit. While it is theoretically possible for one person to both guide Vespris and pursue the hunt with her weapons, past practice has shown that it is impractical, and scarcely as productive as the three-person working arrangement we employ today. Focus is required here, so you must learn to tune out distractions. The orx is your focus, understand?"

Both boys nodded.

Mya smiled at them. "Now, we're going to start you both over here today, as this is where one of you will eventually be working. After today, one of you will go over with Mister Majors for training. It will work better if you each get a one-on-one experience."

Jem and Nico grinned at each other. "How do we determine who goes where?" Nico asked.

The woman laughed. "I am hoping that this is something the two of you can work out amicably between yourselves, in a gentlemanly fashion. I will say it does not really matter who goes where. Mister Majors is almost as good at his job as I am at mine, so your training will be more than up to taking on the open position." She said this with a smile and a wink, and both boys grinned.

"We can flip a coin," Jem suggested.

"I'll wrestle you for it," Nico returned. Jem just grinned. The other boy was no bigger than he, and Jem felt he would pit his mountain-trained muscles against anyone who didn't have size and weight on that.

"I just might do that."

Nico's eyes briefly shone at him, and then the other boy returned his gaze to Mya. Jem continued to smile a little longer, and then followed suit.

In the three days since Vespris had left Nocksic Bay, Jem and Nico had become friends. They both had active minds and wide areas of interest, and Nico had been fascinated by Jem's stories of hunting and trapping in the mountains of Merah, while Jem had been equally fascinated by Nico's recounting of town life. Nico's parents owned one of the many small storage facilities where the catches of ships like Vespris remained frozen until needed. They even owned several of the large steam wagons like the one that Jem had seen passing on the seaside street when he had been walking there with Master Terpin. That the fact signified that Nico came from a well-to-do town family was not lost on Jem; and likely, had they not come together aboard Vespris, they would have never had a chance to meet. Town life was as different from what Jem knew as was life on the sea. Both were fascinating, yet in very different ways.

Nocksic Bay, for all the port city's sprawl, was a small town, only seven thousand souls; but the divisions between townsfolk and those of the sea were clear enough, as well as the divide between those that lived in the town proper, and those that lived in the mountain region outside. They were not divides of class, or of wealth, but divides of culture and experience. People tended to revolve within their own circles, and only circumstance would provide the occasional bridge between their own worlds, and those of others.

But Jem had quickly found Nico to be pleasant company, and that the reverse was true seemed equally plain. They both were new at life upon the sea, and learning it together. It was nice to have someone to talk to, and someone to share ideas with. Jem was used to being around his family, and the idea of living all by himself actually had little appeal for him.

On the second morning, Nico had proposed that they continue to share a cabin together, and Jem had not terribly surprised himself by readily accepting. They had informed Kel, who despite his promise to have the storage cabin cleaned out for Jem in short order, had quickly become involved in his own duties, and not been as thoroughly persistent with the rest of the crew to retrieve their things as he had promised. Kel had been both apologetic to Jem and relieved; the reason everyone had their stuff where it was was because there was no place else convenient to stow it and still have it readily accessible to the living quarters.

"You're a lifesaver, Jem," Kel had said. "I could already picture having to go all the way to stowage to get at my books."

Jem had smiled at that. Despite the prevalence of video pads and even more handy information devices, books had continued to leave Earth and spread among the stars with humankind. Kel collected them, seeking out what few small shops there were that handled such things, in every port that Vespris visited. The man owned almost fifty books, surely a record of some sort.

Jem's own father owned several, handed down through the years as family treasures, stored lovingly, yet seldom actually opened. Their contents could be had off the web, and no one felt the need to subject the books themselves to wear and tear. One was a book of poetry; another an engineering text; and the last a book of fiction, the story contained within which Jem had looked up on his pad and read as a boy. It was an outer space adventure, dated and quaint; but the narrative had been stirring, and had fit in well with Jem's sense of the world as a place that needed exploring.

He could imagine the story as having been the favorite of some Hanlon past, who had once stood upon the shores of Earth and gazed at the sea of stars overhead, and yearned to go there. That the book could even have been an inspiration for that Hanlon to join the colonial expansion program thrilled Jem; every time he touched that particular book, he had wondered if it had played some small part in himself now being on Benteen. The links that forged the chain of life could often be of the most unexpected kind.

Mya nodded to them both. "Good. I like that you two are friendly, despite the fact that you are competing. You will need to work together no matter the result, so you may as well get used to that."

Nico laughed. "Even though Jem will be working in the machine room, we'll still be friends."

Jem grinned at him. "I'll drop down from time to time and visit you there, and remind you of what the sea looks like."

Mya shook her head, but smiled. "Okay, look here." She indicated the display, where a strangely wavy pattern of slightly larger, yellow arcs had appeared, and seemed intent on merging with the green bubbles. "If we were a regular fishing vessel right now, we'd be sending out the hunting calls of orx. Those yellow arcs approaching the stonefish are snappers. They're not a food fish for us, being mostly teeth and bone. They prey on stonefish, among others, and can really mess up fishing for us humans. Interestingly, orx eat snappers, but not stonefish. So by emitting the hunting calls of orx from the keel transducers, we would clear the area of snappers pretty quickly, and allow the nets to gather the stonefish."

On the screen, the yellow arcs swept through the green bubbles, somewhat reducing their numbers. Jem could almost visualize the fight for life going on below, as the predators raced through the clouds of slowly swimming stonefish. "That looks like a massacre in the making," he said.

Mya grunted. "You might think that, but it's not that easy. Stonefish aren't called that without reason. That tough carapace they wear is not easily breached. Our machines can handle them okay, but snappers just have teeth and jaws, and they're at a disadvantage there."

Nico frowned. "So what do they do?"

"They swallow the stonefish whole. Snappers produce some pretty strong stomach acids, and the stonefish simply stays there until that acid dissolves the shell and allows the meat inside to be processed by enzymes. But snappers only have room for one stonefish, so after they pass through a school of them, like you just saw, they simply go off and do other things for a few days until they're hungry again." She pointed at the green bubbles still on the screen. "The remaining stonefish are safe from that particular school of snappers now. But another will be along, eventually."

Jem grinned. "What does a snapper do on his day off?"

Mya returned the grin. "Hell, I don't know. Play web games, watch the view? But you can always tell when snappers have eaten stonefish, because they will swim right past other food fish without bothering them."

For the rest of the morning, Mya continued to show them how different sea life appeared within the sonar's imager. For the most part, life was all that they saw, as the ocean they were crossing was too deep for the bottom to appear on screen. Yet one time, a large gray hump slowly appeared at the very base of the display, and they seemed a long time passing over it.

"Seamount," Mya said, and leaned closer to the display and tapped at several different colored squares, before straightening. "And an unlisted one, too." She looked at the boys. "Every ship that cruises the sea helps to further map it. The location and depth of that mount will go into the daily navigational infodump Vespris squirts back to Nocksic Bay, and maps everywhere will be updated to show it. Seamounts are of particular interest to us, because orx often fish near them."

They watched the display, waiting to see if the red ovals that would indicate the presence of orx would appear; but there were apparently none in the vicinity. Mya said she really hadn't expected any, as they were not really far enough north yet for the beasts to become commonplace. Another day, maybe two, of travel, and they could expect to start encountering orx.

They broke for lunch, and Jem found himself hungry. They went belowdecks to the ship's dining room, and selected their meals from the listings. Everyone aboard Vespris was his or her own cook, utilizing the combo ovens to produce something tasty and steaming hot within minutes. The refrigerators and freezers stored perishable items, and a simple, walk-in locker stored foods that could be kept at room temperature. A small elevator in one wall dropped directly to ship's stores below; and the rule was, you ate the last of something, you went down a deck and brought up some new supplies. There was a detailed map of the storage below, describing where to find anything the kitchen might need.

Nita Frees was there at one table, eating alongside Pora Unguda, and Mila Stern, the ship's systems technician. They were discussing orx, and, not too surprisingly, what might have happened to Chregar. The previous evening, Master Terpin had filled everyone in on what he knew, as there had been a leak back in administration in Nocksic Bay, and a confused variant of the facts had made it to the newsfeeds. The master felt it better to lay out the facts he had verified, rather than have the crew only know the slightly fantastic version that was playing on the news.

The story there was that hundreds of orx had attacked the unfortunate vessel, climbed aboard and eaten the crew, and then somehow scuttled the ship. Jem had laughed when he had heard that, because very few reasoning people would believe such a tale. The people that lived by the sea knew her ways, even if they did not travel over her depths. Centuries of orx hunting and knowledge about the beasts were not about to be thrown away and replaced with such lurid fantasies. But Jem now felt free to discuss Chregar's fate, as the exercises in hyperbole currently in the media far exceeded anything he could contribute to the speculation.

"Must have been a slow news day," Nita was saying, between mouthfuls. "I can't get over how the normally excellent quality of daily news we get can be corrupted by one unusual event. Sensationalism is apparently still alive and well in Nocksic Bay."

Mila Stern, a pleasant-looking older blonde with a winsome smile, nodded. "Oh, the second story will be factual, as always. I think they like to grab some attention with breaking news, so that people will return for the real details later. Being sensational on the first draft just ensures that everyone will check in later, and therefore get the facts."

Pora grinned. "Always the optimist, Mila. I think our friends at the news center are just playing the story a little, like any good news people would do. I'll bet they were all smiling when they released that first report. What would viewers think if some drab fellow appeared on the view and stated in a bored monotone that a few orx had apparently managed to sink Chregar? The watchers would be switching to the danger dramas in droves!"

Mila frowned. "Are you saying that our lives are dull?"

Pora blinked at that. "Well, perhaps not ours, specifically. But I grew to manhood ashore, and I recall that it was not the most exciting of existences. I'm certain that the lives of people on Benteen were far more thrilling five hundred years ago, after first landing, when they were setting about to carve a life out of a hostile and untamed world. But these days? Pfah!"

"I enjoy my life," Mila returned, defensively. "Working with the ship's systems is always interesting, and I love to travel. I've been far and wide in my time, and seen a great deal of fascinating things. I think my life is fun."

Nita laughed. "I think Pora is comparing the lives of those that go out into the world for their work to those that remain behind, sitting at desks or running shops, or the inn, or what have you. My boss at the Section on Marine Biology has not moved from his desk in twenty years. Rumor has it that he sleeps beneath it each night."

Jem couldn't help grinning at that. There were many people who had never left the confines of the town, never seen the mountains up close, nor the far reaches of the sea. Some people were content with such a life, but Jem had never been able to understand it.

When he and his father returned from their expeditions of hunting and trapping in the mountains, they would go by the shop of the furrier, Mister Mathers, and that man would marvel over the pelts they had brought in, stroking them lovingly. And then he would proceed to haggle, and Jem's father always played the game and came out well, for he knew the value of his merchandise, and what it took to acquire it. Furs were luxury items, made into comfortable coats and jackets that looked several cuts above the standard-issue cold weather wear. But they were poor replacements for the manufactured clothing everyone wore on a daily basis, unable to provide the same level of protection against the winter cold as the synthetics, and only suitable for wearing in town, where it was warmer, and where there were places to wear such garments where they would stand out and be appreciated for their beauty.

Almost invariably, after such negotiations were completed, Mister Mathers would rise from his table and stretch, and gaze out the large window facing the front of his shop at the mountains beyond, and shake his head at the ever-present threat of more snow there. "You'll have to have a warm fire tonight to augment the heat at your place," he would say, time and again, and once more shake his head at those mountains. "Don't know how you do it, all that cold and snow."

And Jem's father would smile, and nod at the piles of neatly folded pelts upon the table, and say, "And that is why I sell, and you buy."

It was a ritual, and an old one, and Jem had become so used to it that he mostly ignored it these days. But as an illustration of the different sorts of mindsets that existed in the world, it was illuminating. Some people viewed the world as a place to go out into; while others viewed it as a place to be shielded from. For Jem, the wideness of the world simply meant that there were more places to explore, more things to learn about, more wonders to see.

He and Nico agreed to split an ustric steak and a side dish, while Mya whipped up a salad for herself. It only took minutes to prepare their food. Presently, they joined those at the table, who were still discussing the mystery of Chregar's fate.

"Master Terpin said that the data indicated the wreckage found upon the sea was not nearly of sufficient mass and composition to be Chregar herself," Pora was saying. "It was composed of internals, mostly, and cargo. No ironwood was among the debris, and so that indicates no parts of the hull were present."

"Ironwood floats amazingly well, because it's carbon structure is porous," Nita pointed out. "But I would think the presence of internals like cabin walls and such would point to the vessel going down. The hull is ironwood, but the deck and port covers are of less indestructible synthetics and woods, and the ship going down would tend to vent its internal air, and carry along quite a bit of material with it."

Mila shook her head. "You just don't get how tough ironwood really is. They use high-powered, multi-wave lasers to sculpt, fuse, and polish the exteriors of ship's hulls, which seals them against water. And just about anything else. There isn't a beast alive that could put a hole in a hull made of that stuff. Vessels have rammed icebergs at speed without so much as scratching the hull. No matter how the internals came to be in the sea, I cannot believe it was due to the hull being holed."

"I have to agree with that," Nico put in, looking around at the others. "Ironwood is stronger than top-grade steel, and far more resistant to deformation. Animal flesh just couldn't apply enough force to harm it."

Jem also agreed. Ironwood had been one of the chief exports of Benteen in its early years of colonization, before contact with Earth and its fledgling space confederation had been lost. While most people called it a wood, as it grew from the ground like a tree, it was in actuality something new and unique to human experience: a natural substance consisting of a mesh of carbon atoms in a unique geometry that gave it tremendous strength, similar to artificial carbon structures like graphenes, from which humans had been building things for centuries. Ironwood was stronger than the best steels, yet far less dense, and its lightweight properties made it much in demand for construction projects throughout human space.

"Maybe they rolled her," Jem said, shrugging. "Maybe a couple of dozen orx came aboard and climbed her masts, and spilled her on her side. Water would rush into her internal spaces, and then back out again as she invariably righted herself. Orxhunters are very well-balanced vessels. I remember reading somewhere that, even filled with water, the hull will not sink."

For a moment everyone just stared at him; and then Pora laughed. "Jump right in, Jem!"

Mila stared at him. "That's a frightening scenario, Jem. Are you writing horror stories in your spare time?"

Nita nodded. "Really. What you propose would require that the orx had worked out what was needed to tip the ship over. That would make them a little smarter than I am comfortable with."

Pora frowned. "Filling an orxhunter with water would put her down to her rails in the sea, but you're right that it wouldn't sink her. Ironwood is extremely buoyant. It's carbon matrix is internally porous and contains too much air for that to happen. Orxhunters are carefully weighted at the keel to afford them a gravitational 'bottom', and to keep them from riding too high. You would need to break the vessel into small sections in order for that weight to be enough to pull her under, and even then the sections would not sink to the floor of the sea." He grinned. "They would become rather unique navigation hazards, I suspect, that would cause ship masters everywhere to learn some new invective."

Jem laughed. "I was just trying to envision some incident that might break up her internal compartments and then allow some of the material to rush out again."

Pora nodded. "Maybe if they rolled her completely, say down to port and then back up a-starboard. I don't know if that could even be done, given the buoyancy and weighting of the hull. And I just can't imagine orx doing that!"

"Until recently, we could not imagine them traveling in large pods, either," Nita offered. "For the extent of human occupation of this world, orx have traveled alone or in family units, only. A massing of family units into pods would be an astounding change in their habits."

"I can see it," Jem said, recalling his conversation with Master Terpin and Mister Landers on the pier. "If they banded together to defend themselves from us, in any case."

Again, everyone simply stared at him. Pora was again the first to laugh. "Oh, having you aboard is going to be delightful, Jem!"

Mila smiled at him, and resumed eating; but Nita watched him silently, her expression somewhat speculative. "Interesting idea. What made you think of that?"

"It happened in the mountains, starting about a year ago. Siffle were solitary hunters until then; but at that time they started traveling in pairs, and even small packs. They're still no match for modern weapons; but it takes a much more determined and well-outfitted person to hunt them now, than it once did. That's why the price of the meat has gone up, in case you haven't noticed."

Nico gaped in surprise a moment, and then looked down at the meat on his plate. "And ustric?"

Jem laughed. "Ustric still hunt alone. They're too big and too mean and too territorial to get together for any reason."

"Probably for the best," Pora decided. "Going along with your scenario of Benteen life massing against us, I don't think I'd like a pack of ustric attacking the town."

"It would be messy," Jem agreed. "As big as they are, if they decided they wanted to come into your house, no door would keep them out."

"There has never been any indication I know of that siffle are any smarter than any other native animal," Nita said. "Are you suggesting that perhaps they are?"

"No." Jem shook his head. "My dad knows them better than I do, and he thinks they're very clever, but nothing more. Nevertheless, they do seem to have joined forces for protection against hunters, which is a demonstration of smarts of some kind. Don't you think?"

"Maybe. Siffle are outside my area of expertise. Still, I think I would have heard something about it."

Jem shrugged. "Most of the mountain breeds have been studied to death in the centuries our kind have been on Benteen. I don't think I've seen any of your science crowd in the mountains in some years."

"Maybe we need to change that." Nita smiled at him. "Would you mind if I credit you with the suggestion that this be looked into? I'll send a report back to the Biology Department."

"Okay by me." Jem frowned. "You should also tell them that if they send some people up there to check things out, that they need to go in numbers, and well-armed. Things have changed since they were there last."

Nita nodded. "Our budget is limited, and it's true our local office has chiefly been concerned with the sea of late, because so much of our food comes from there. The Colonial Administration people dictate the overall budget, and they are much more concerned with the wild species that threaten the southern towns than what goes on here in the north. Those studies, and the expeditions south to the warmer continents near the equator, consume most of the yearly allowance. But maybe it's a good idea to give the mountains a second look. I know a few people that work in that area, and they haven't been out of their lab in some time. I think you're right that they think they've seen enough on-site data to make do with specimens that the trappers bring back." She frowned. "I'm surprised your father hasn't reported this new activity, himself."

Jem rolled his eyes. "He did, three times. Someone at Biology thanked him, and that was the end of it."

Nita grunted. "I can poke a stick into it, believe me."

Jem did believe her. That this girl went after the things she was interested in was now apparent. "Poke away."

The girl nodded, now looking concerned. "That's all we need, is to have the mountain life suddenly go on the offensive while we're busy looking the other way. It's only the natural avoidance those species have learned for our kind that keep them from visiting closer to human habitation."

Mountain wildlife tended to stay in the mountains, though the occasional ustric had made its way down to the forests outside of Nocksic bay in the past. But all wildlife in the north lands shied away from humans unless confronted or trapped, and for that to change would mean that human towns in the north would need to adopt the same defensive tactics that human settlements in the much warmer and wilder south lands employed. Jem would hate to see a great wall erected around Nocksic Bay and its surrounds, standing tall between him and the mountains he loved. To have to live in defense against the whole world was an unpleasant and frightening idea.

Nita grinned at his suddenly intense look, and shook her head. "How's the training going?"

That this was a signal to change the subject was not lost on Jem. He relaxed, and went back to eating his steak. "Not badly. The competition is fierce."

Nico laughed at that. "I'll say!"

The boys smiled at each other, and Nita nodded. "At least the competition seems friendly. That's a good sign."

"We'll be okay," Nico said. "However it goes, it will be okay."

Jem nodded at that, and then went back to eating.

He did want the slot as the shotsman. But he had also come to understand that it might not happen. Nico was smart, and learned very quickly. Jem had a slight edge in knowledge, from having viewed Old Kebin's manuals; but the advantage was slight, overall. Mya was treating them both as greenies, to be trained from the ground up, and that negated some of the advantages that Jem had acquired. Both boys would wind up with the same experience and knowledge.

Pora smiled. "Working with Mister Sharples would be an adventure, too. And learning to operate and maintain the systems used to power Vespris would ensure one of employment for life." He nodded his head at Jem. "If anything you have suggested about Orx were found to be true, the position of shotsman could come to an end some day. But ships and shore installations will always need power."

Jem considered that, and saw the wisdom of the man's words. But...working belowdecks was not what he wanted, at least, not now. It was no way to see the world; or, rather, no way to see it as it unfolded around him. But he was reminded of Master Terpin's words that he could move around the ship into different jobs, and so if he did wind up as the apprentice in the ship's engine room, it would not be an end, only a stop along the way. The world would still be out there, waiting.

They finished their meals, and Jem and Nico returned with Mya to the main deck. Some of the overcast had burned away, and the sky had lightened, although the sun was still just a bright suggestion overhead. Til waved at them from his port side station, and shook his head at Mya, to let her know that he had not seen any indication of orx while they had been away.

They continued with their training, learning the many different types of sea life as they were shown within the sonar view, how they moved and how they interacted together, and how they used the natural elements of the sea around them for both offense and defense. Some species would move as a school, and run and hide beneath thermal differences in the currents when danger presented itself, which at least partially shielded them from hunters that used differences in heat, or echo location, as a guide. These same hunters could use the thermals to hide in, and dart out upon their prey as they passed. Others species scattered, and it was every fish for himself; while still others went on the attack, even though outnumbered and overpowered.

Benteen was seventy-percent ocean, and the variety of life that lived in those depths was exceptional. The cold northern waters hosted considerably less violent lifeforms than did the warm equatorial waters, with the orx being at the top of the food chain here. But even these beasts would be no match for some of the things said to lurk within the warmer waters far to the south. Special ships were required to explore the great south, ones made entirely from ironwood, and fully enclosed, like the ancient submarines of Old Earth. And still there were those ships that left to explore, and were never heard from again.

Benteen favored no one, and certainly not interlopers.

By the end of the first day of training, both boys had a working knowledge of the sonar array and what they could expect to see in the view. As yet there had been no orx, but they were again running on the turbines, and Mya figured that, at their present speed, they would be far enough north by midday next to start encountering them.

"Tomorrow we'll start looking at capture equipment. The harpoon guns, shockers, drogue launchers, and reels." She laughed. "This is actually not a complex job, guys. Once you know the procedures, it just takes some practice to get the hang of the equipment. Then there is only instinct, which is where we will see which of you is the best hunter."

Jem and Nico looked at each other. "What exactly does that mean?" Nico asked.

"Well, you'll develop a feel for what an orx will do next in the water. Trying to stay one move ahead of them is what leads to a successful catch. Not everyone can do it."

"I would think that would be something you'd learn with experience," Jem offered.

"You will hone that ability over time, but a natural feel for what your prey will do next is important. You'll have to see what I mean when we get to that point. I don't think I can tell you."

They adjourned, and Jem and Nico went back to their cabin to talk and relax a little before the evening meal.

"What do you think?" Nico asked, sprawling on his bunk. "Is this interesting, or what?"

Jem sat on the edge of his own bunk. "I'm enjoying it, so far."

"I can already tell that you'll be good with the sensor array, Jem. You have a leg up on me there."

"You weren't doing badly at all," Jem returned. "You learn quickly, and you're smart."

Nico grinned at the compliment, but then shook his head. "I have to admit that this is not exactly as I imagined it would be. There's more science to this than I was expecting."

"Does that bother you?"

"No, not really. I have a good grounding in science." Nico frowned. "I just thought it would be slightly more adventurous, instead of so--"

"Methodical?" Jem supplied. "Or so...perfected?"

"Yes, I guess. Both of those things."

Jem smiled. "What were you expecting?"

Nico gave a short laugh, and Jem had to smile at that. "You won't laugh?" Nico asked.

"No. I promise."

The other boy leaned closer. "I think I thought it would feel more...dangerous. Like we were actually hunting something, instead of just chasing it down and catching it."

Jem scratched his chin. "We haven't even pursued our first orx yet."

"Oh, I know. But seeing the kind of technology we'll have, I can't see it being more than a little cat and mouse-type of chase, with us having most of the advantage."

Jem frowned at that. "I have a godfather, who served on orxhunters in the past. He's the one that wrote my introductory letter to Master Terpin. He's told me some stories of orx hunting that might change your mind."

Nico's eyes widened, and he sat up and grinned at Jem. "Really? Tell me one?"

Jem laughed, and bent down and took his boots off, and then laid back and made himself comfortable in his bunk. Nico grinned, and copied his movements, and then nodded eagerly. "Okay, now tell me."

Jem nodded, thinking back over the many tales Old Kebin had told him. "Well, this one time, the ship he was on was moving slowly through pack ice. Really tight stuff, with the prow of the ship forcing apart the loose chunks of ice as they moved through the water. It was pancake ice, mostly, though there were a few bergs locked in with the floe, and some of them were as tall as the masts of the ship."

Jem grinned at the look of rapt attention on Nico's face. "Well, the ship came around this one tall berg, and suddenly, there were two orx, relaxing on a ledge on the back side of it."

"Out of the water?" Nico breathed, enthralled. "I never heard of that!"

"Uh huh. Unlike most Benteen sea life, which have counter-current oxygen transfer systems similar to the gills in terrestrial fish, orx have lungs like we do. They have a snorkel - that rubbery tube you always see waving about in vids of them - and they travel mostly just below the surface, with the snorkel above the water, so that they can breathe. When they dive, the end of it pinches closed. They have a huge air sack inside their bodies they can fill with air, and they can actually go pretty deep, and stay down for almost an hour."

"I knew all that, I think," Nico supplied, grinning. "I just didn't know they actually got out of the water."

"They do, according to Old Kebin. They use the sharp lances on the ends of their tentacles to dig into the ice and draw themselves out of the water, and then let the ice floe carry them along. Kebin said they saw entire families of orx atop some ice floes. Usually, they would get back into the water very quickly when they saw a ship coming."

"But not that time?"

"No. The orx were as surprised to see the ship as the crew was to see the orx. One crewman was standing at the rail, and one of the orx shot out a tentacle and grabbed him right off the ship."

Nico's jaw dropped. "What happened?"

"Well, the ship was moving, so it went right on by the berg. They reversed the engines, but you know how long it takes a ship to come to a stop. By the time they did, the orx had vanished back into the water."

"And the crewman?"

Jem sighed. "Was lost. Kebin said they eventually caught one of the orx, but they never saw the crewman again."

Nico gave out a soft whistle. "Damn. That's pretty serious."

Jem nodded. "It's a dangerous profession. Old Kebin said that orx have killed hundreds of crew in the time humans have been hunting them."

"You don't get all that off the infoweb, I'll say that." Nico nodded. "I knew people have been killed doing this, but I guess I always kind of thought of those as accidents."

"They're not. Orx are smart, fast, and powerful. And they sure don't want to be caught. They'll attack if they're cornered, and their lances are really dangerous. Some of the things they do are totally unpredictable, and I think that's what Mya was saying when she said you needed to have a feel for them."

The other boy was silent a moment, watching Jem. "You've been hunting in the mountains with your dad? Ustric, and siffle?"

"Yes. And snow lion and tree climbers, too. And they are just as dangerous, and will kill you if you aren't careful."

Nico suddenly sighed. "I'm thinking you may be better qualified for this position than I am. The only hunting I've ever really done is in my dad's warehouse, looking for mislabeled crates."

Jem blinked at the admission. "Well...I've never hunted anything in the sea. That makes us even, there."

Nico brightened. "Hmm. It does, doesn't it?"

"Uh huh."


"Still right here."

Nico smiled at him, but there was a concerned edge to it that could not be missed. "Do you really think that orx are smart enough to work together to fight us?"

Jem considered that, and then leaned closer to the other boy. "My godfather thought so. He never told me exactly why he left the sea, but...I think it had something to do with orx."

The other boy mulled that over a moment, and then shrugged. "I guess we'll find out."

"I guess we will."

Nico continued to smile at him a moment, and then settled back on his elbows. "Can I ask you something?"


Nico made a small grimace, and then rolled one shoulder. "Uh...what kind of relationships are you interested in?"

Jem stared at the other boy a moment before he understood. He felt his face warm, and rolled his eyes. "Well...I really haven't had any yet. Nothing serious, anyway. Where I'm from there weren't that many opportunities."

"Oh. I only ask because I can see that you like Nita. I was just wondering if you might pursue a relationship with her, maybe."

Jem laughed. "I do like her, but I think she's already in a relationship with her profession."

Nico somehow looked relieved. "Oh. I mean...I was just wondering." He considered Jem's words, and then grinned. "So you like her, you just don't think you can get her."

"Something like that." The way that the other boy watched him made Jem smile. "Why? Are you interested in her, too?"

Nico shrugged. "I like her. She's fun and she's smart. But I agree that she isn't interested in a people relationship just now."

"No. And that's too bad, because I think Kel likes her, and would like to get closer to her."

Nico laughed delightedly. "I saw that, too. We'll just have to wait and watch him work, I guess."

"I guess."

For a moment more nothing else was said, and Jem just watched Nico watch him.

"I like you," the other boy suddenly said.

"I like you, too," Jem returned, smiling.

That seemed to please Nico. He sighed, and then laid back on his bunk and drew his legs up. "So...I know there is no real meal time on board, because everyone just eats at their own pace. But I heard also that Master Terpin does eat the evening meal at a certain time each day, and sometimes in the common mess. I haven't had a good chance to talk to him at length yet. You want to walk to the mess later and see if he's there this evening?"

"Sure. I came aboard with him, so I have talked to him a little. He's very interesting."

Nico nodded. "He looks a little intimidating."

Jem grinned. "I know. And I think he's pretty tough inside, too. But he struck me as being a very fair and decent man. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"Oh, I wasn't worrying. Skippering an orxhunter isn't something that just anyone can do. I just thought he looked like he was so serious about it that he didn't have a lot of fun doing it."

"I don't think he's like that," Jem decided. He frowned. "No, I'm sure he loves it and enjoys it. And I'd wager he has fun with it, too. He's just very quiet inside, I think. Very stable. I have a feeling we're under a good master with this one."

Nico sat up again, grinning. "I'll wrestle you to see who goes with Mister Majors tomorrow."

Jem laughed. "I thought you were kidding about that."

"I wasn't."

Jem stood up and moved to the common area before the sofa. "You're on."

Nico came off his bunk, his face lit in delight. "I have to warn you - I wrestled in school."

He came at Jem then, and they danced around in a circle a moment, grinning at each other, before Nico lunged forward. He got a good hold on Jem - almost a winning hold. Jem felt the other boy's strength, and decided to use that. Jem twisted, going with the application of force, and that caused Nico to step off balance. Jem was right on it, and in a second had Nico on his back on the carpeted deck, and laid upon him, pinning him. Nico struggled a moment more, and then relaxed.

"I should have warned you, I wrestled in school, too," Jem said.

Nico grinned up at him. "That was fast. I guess you win."

"You didn't seem to be trying very hard," Jem countered.

"I didn't want to hurt you. But I didn't just give in, either. You won fairly enough." Nico laughed. "You're strong as a vort!"

"I guess I get to go with Mister Majors, then."

Nico gaped, and then laughed. "But you won!"

"So I get to choose. And I choose to go with Mister Majors tomorrow."

Jem turned, until he was looking down into Nico's eyes. "So. What do we do next?"

Nico's smile faded. "Jem...are you only attracted to girls?"

Jem sighed. "No. I like who I like."

Nico gave out a big sigh, and his eyes smiled at Jem. "You can let me up now."

For just a second Jem didn't want to, enjoying his position of closeness to Nico. That some bond - some special one - was forming between them, he could already see. But, it was too soon, too early, to see where it might lead, and so Jem grunted and got up, and helped the other boy to his feet.

Nico smiled at him. "There's still some time before we have to go and eat. Up for a game of Marksman?"

Jem laughed. "I never really had much time for web games."

Nico took him by an arm, and directed him to the sofa. They sat, and Nico activated the view. "It's not hard. I'll teach you."

They played five games. Nico won the first three, but Jem won the fourth, and the fifth was a tie.

Nico sighed. "This is going to be fun, knowing you, Jem."

Jem grinned. "I think so, too."

Nico jumped to his feet and shut off the view "Ready to eat?"


"Then let's go."

They encountered Mister Sharples in the corridor, and he stopped and smiled at them. "How are things going, lads?"

"So far, so good," Nico said.

Jem nodded. "We're learning some things, definitely."

The older man seemed pleased at that. "Learning is a gift. There's more to know in this world than the years we get in life can ever allow us to assimilate. I'm hoping one of you will want to come and work with me, when your current tryout is resolved."

"We've both decided we will accept whatever position is available to us," Jem said.

"Really?" Mister Sharples looked delighted. "Where are you lads heading now?"

Nico laughed. "To the mess. We were hoping to see Master Terpin there."

"I just left the mess, and he is there. Just sat down, as a matter of fact." The chief engineer suddenly grinned. "You know, I forgot to have my dessert? Perhaps I'll walk back with you."

Nico grinned at Jem, his eyes asking, is this great, or what? and the three of them headed back the way the engineer had just come.

"Mister Sharples, I imagine you don't get much freedom without an assistant, do you?" Nico gently elbowed Jem as he said it, and Jem tried hard not to laugh.

The engineer looked over at him, his eyebrows knit in a question. "How do you mean?"

"Well, if you are the only one to watch the engines, how do you go to even eat?"

The older man laughed. "Oh. It's not so involved as all that. The automated systems are very efficient, and I can monitor everything from my pad. It's not like I have to stand over the equipment and watch it."

"How about the heat source?" Jem asked. "Is it that dependable?"

"Yes. We have one of the original, Earth-made fusion heat sources, not one of the ones made here on Benteen later. Both are very dependable, but the Earth-made technology is superior. There hasn't been a fail of an original fusion source in the five hundred years that humans have used them on this world."

"I read about how the system works," Jem offered. "It's actually pretty straightforward."

"It is that, tried and tested, and extremely dependable. Back in the past, on Earth, marine systems utilizing steam had been supplanted by fossil fuel engines at one point; but steam was resurrected here due to the lack of easily obtainable native fuels. The system works, and it works well."

Jem had to admit that such technological things interested him. Were it not such a confining position, belowdecks as it were, he might even be more interested in the job.

"I'm sure one of us will be very happy to come and work with you," Jem said, elbowing Nico back.

They arrived at the mess, and went inside. Surprisingly, Master Terpin was the only one there at the moment, and it was obvious that he had just begun his meal. Mister Sharples extended his arms and dropped them on the boy's shoulders when they hesitated, and ushered them to the table.

Master Terpin looked up at them, and his eyes sought out the engineer's. "Back already, Mister Sharples?"

"I forgot my dessert. And the lads here were on their way to eat, so I thought I would come along and pick their brains. It's been interesting, so far."

Master Terpin's eyes moved to inspect Nico, and then Jem. "Two lively ones we have this round, it seems."

"Indeed. They have told me that whichever of them does not obtain the shotsman's position will be coming to work with me."

"I suspected as much." The master gave a nod of his head. "Care to sit?"

The three new arrivals went to get their trays, and Mister Sharples grabbed a slice of pie from the cooler and went back to sit at the table, while Jem and Nico cooked their siffle and made salads. Presently, the boys returned to the table with their trays and sat down. The two older men were discussing a repair that the engineer had made earlier.

"When an intake pump starts to growl like that one did, it's time to replace. I'll break the old one down when time permits and see what sort of trouble it was in."

Jem remembered then that the engineer had returned to the vessel with a package while Jem had still been standing at the landing with Kel MacAfee. "Oh, you replaced the number six intake pump?"

Mister Sharples blinked in surprise, and then smiled. "The gear drive, yes. How did you know that?"

Jem felt his face grow warm, and wondered if he had overstepped his place. "Well...I heard Mister MacAfee telling Master Terpin that you had gone to town to fetch the parts."

"And you remembered that, did you?" Master Terpin asked. His gaze looked approving.

"Yes, sir. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it was hard to miss."

"No worries, Jem-lad. There are no secrets to be had aboard ship. Just use of discretion, which I already know you understand."

"We were talking about Chregar at lunch," Jem supplied. "Some interesting ideas about what happened going around."

Master Terpin's eyes crinkled a bit, and Mister Sharples laughed. "No doubt. We haven't had such a delicious mystery in some time. I just hope the vessel is found, and that there are survivors to tell us what really happened."

A thought Jem had had earlier on deck - a wondering sort of thought, really - came back to the fore. "Um..."

Master Terpin almost smiled at him. "What's bothering you, Jem-lad?"

"Well...when we were up on deck earlier, I looked over one of the harpoon guns in passing...and...well--"

Master Terpin and Mister Sharples looked at each other, and then both focused on Jem.

"Spit it out, lad," the engineer said, cheerfully. "We haven't bitten anyone all day!"

Jem smiled at that. "Well, the mounts are all rigged to point the weapons at the sea. There are detents present that keep them from swinging inboard."

The engineer nodded. "A safety precaution, is all. We don't want any of that sort of munitions being shot around where people may be working."

Jem nodded. "But...if you can only shoot at the sea, what happens...what happens if we're boarded?"

Both men stared at Jem a moment in silence; and then the chief engineer laughed and slapped the table next to his pie. "What have you been reading, Jem? There's been no piracy on Benteen, ever!"

Jem shook his head." I don't mean people, sir. I was just would we defend the ship if orx came aboard?"

The engineer's smile died away, and Master Terpin's eyebrows actually raised a few millimeters. But then his eyes narrowed. "Are you referring to the wild stories about Chregar?"

Jem nodded. "Without knowing what happened, shouldn't we consider all possible dangers?"

The master frowned, and for a moment looked as if the idea annoyed him. Orx, coming aboard on their own? Ridiculous!

But then the man's eyes returned to Jem, and watched him a moment, before turning to touch upon those of his chief engineer. "What about that, Mister Sharples?"

The engineer looked briefly astonished - and then thoughtful. "Well...I have a half dozen spare mounts for the harpoon guns in storage. We could place a mount fore and aft of the working deck, and I have several replacement heads for the laser cutting array. Suppose we placed one on each mount, and tied them into your bridge display? You could cover the entire deck with them."

The master nodded. "Aren't those laser heads for close-cutting?"

"Yes. But remember they are extremely powerful tools. The fall-off in effectiveness over distance is tolerable if used against simple flesh. One at each end of the working deck would do the job nicely, I think."

Master Terpin looked back at Jem. "Would that satisfy you, Mister Hanlon?"

Jem blinked in surprise, both at the question, and at the way the man addressed him as if he were full crew. "Well, yes, sir. I think that would make the deck more secure." He patted the small sidearm that he and all crew wore at their belts. "Certainly more effective against twenty tons of angry orx than my pistol, sir."

The master nodded. "I agree. A very good suggestion, Jem. Have some pie with that meal. It's very good."

Jem's eyes widened at the non-sequitur. "Uh...okay. I'll try some."

The master turned back to Mister Sharples, and gave a quick nod. "See to that, if you could, Frin. Ask Mila to help you with the electronics. It will go faster."

The chief engineer withdrew his pad from a pocket and glanced at it. "Still an hour before dark. That should be long enough." He grabbed up his slice of pie and got to his feet, nodded at all of them, and then left the mess.

The master quickly finished his own meal, and got up. He took his tray to the dishwasher and dropped it in, and then got two cups of coffee from the dispenser before turning back to them. "I promised Moira I'd bring her a coffee when I came back." Moira Hata was the evening helm, watching over the motion of the ship when Master Terpin was off duty. She was also the ship's doctor, a service that was almost never needed on Vespris.

Jem hoped that that would remain so, for the rest of their journey.

"See you lads later." The master winked at them, and then left.

Nico suddenly let out his breath, as if he'd been holding it in. He turned to Jem, and grinned. "That was amazing, Jem!"

"What? It was just a suggestion."

"It was a good one. Did you see how fast they took it up?" Nico shook his head. "I should just quit now, and make my way to the engine room."

Jem gaped, and then put an arm around the other boy's shoulders. "No quitting allowed."

Nico watched him a moment, but seemed in no hurry to remove himself from within Jem's embrace. "Okay. I'll do my best to win." He grinned then. "How about some more Marksman when we get back to the cabin?"

Jem smiled. "That sounds like fun."

They finished their meal, and both of them had a slice of the pie.

Master Terpin had been correct. It was very good, indeed.

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