Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hellstrom Voyage Chapter 2: At Sea

Captain’s Log: Captain Herriman Hellstrom, commanding H.M.S. Constant

In an hour I will formally meet my officers for the first time at my first official dinner as Captain of this vessel. Many of my crew has served with me before but others are total strangers to me. Hopefully they are all competent and brave men and women or this voyage might be a good deal shorter than Her Majesty intends.

By the state of her dress when she returned, I infer that Miss Medeirra had to use her gift while returning Dr. Greeland to the Constant. Her gift is fascinating to me and certainly an asset to me as Captain, one reason I picked her to be my first officer for this voyage following the promotion of Lieutenant Selgen to his own command.

With the Constant traveling into unknown waters, for the Gods know how long a journey, an officer with the ability to change into any animal could be the difference between life and a slow death as our supplies run out.

The Constant only has room for 6 months supplies and Greeland’s prediction of the size of the Earth is just wrong, as any navigator could tell him if he’d take the time to listen. That means if this voyage is to succeed, we will need to find sources of food and water along the way.

Of course, every gift has its price and here I am no expert. The ship’s physician, Doctor Argonis explained it to me as a tapping into a wild, primal force responsible for the creation of the universe. The greater the power of one’s gift, the less easily it can be controlled.

In Miss Medeirra’s case, she assumes not just the physical body of the creatures she transforms into but the longer she maintains a form the more she assumes the mentality of that form. I can only imagine what that must be like.

Captain Hellstrom looked up as his cook walked in after a brief, perfunctory knock. While few among the crew had the license to enter his quarters at will, this man certainly merited such a privilege as it would be he who made the long tedium that made up voyages like this tolerable.

“Well my good Mr. Fournier, what will you have for us tonight?”

The slight man smoothed his line-thin mustache before answering, “I managed to purchase from fresh fish just before leaving port, which I will broil and serve with lemon slices. We’ll have baked potatoes and bread pudding for desert.”

The Captain leaned back in his chair, idly watching his logbook as it slid back and forth on his table with the easy, rolling gait of the ship. For a moment he slipped into a reverie, imagining the meal, which only made him hungry.

“Excellent as always Mr. Fournier. And the crew, what will they be eating for their first meal as shipmates on the Constant?” The question caused Mr. Fournier to smooth his mustache again, which forced Captain Hellstrom to hide a smile.

Almost grimacing before answering, as if the very thought of cooking for the common crew made him want to vomit, Fournier answered, “Cabbage stew and bread, Sir. Since we have a long voyage, Dr. Argonis has advised me to build up the men’s supply of certain nutrients that will stave off scurvy. He doubts many of these dregs had balanced diets before, so we must start right away.”

Hellstrom winced at the thought. The cabbage would certainly help the men avoid scurvy but it would also give them gas. Any nostalgia for life below decks as a crewman immediately ran from his mind, “An excellent thought Mr. Fournier. Both you and the doctor are to be commended for seeing to the men’s health. You are dismissed.”

Mr. Fournier looked inordinately proud as he left the cabin. Captain Hellstrom picked up his pen but sat it down again before committing another word to paper. The waning light coming through the window of his stateroom seemed to draw him out onto the rear balcony of the ship.

He leaned against the railing, staring back the way the ship had come as the ship rose and fell in the water. In the distance, his home, his family, the entirety of the Island Kingdom and her war against the Mandileu Empire faded into the distance.

Despite the gravity of the situation, with the Island Kingdom standing alone against an empire that had conquered the entire continent behind him and an unknown journey to a strange land before him, Captain Herriman suddenly felt he was the luckiest man alive as he enjoyed one of the many luxuries afforded a ship captain and stared out over the sea as the sun went down.

By the time all his guests had arrived, the sun was down and the yeoman had lit the lamps around the Captain’s table. Besides Captain Hellstrom and First Lieutenant Medeirra, the Captain had invited the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Argonis, the Royal Cartographer, Silas Manfred and Major Broughton, leader of the ship’s marine sharpshooters contingent.

The fish had gone over splendidly, as had the bread pudding and everyone was laughing and enjoying their conversation as the third bottle of port wine was passed around the table.

Dr. Argonis filled his glass before sitting the bottle of port back on the table, where it slid toward the edge of the table with the movement of the ship. The Doctor realized his error too late but Major Broughton was an old hand and deftly scooped up the bottle as it teetered on the edge of the table, refilling his glass before returning it to the center of the table, this time closer to the center where it was in no danger of falling off.

As he leaned back in his chair, the metal plate on Major Broughton’s temple caught the light and the doctor’s attention.

“That’s quite a piece of workmanship you have there Major,” the old surgeon remarked, eyeing the metal plate without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, as one who was used to inspecting wounds could do.

The Major just smiled and turned his head to give the doctor a better look. He also made sure to turn more toward the Royal Cartographer, who had been trying to avoid looking or remarking on his injury all night. His discomfort seemed to make the Major almost as proud as his war wound.

“Yes, indeed it is. Though the metal makes me a bit nervous when I’m up in the rigging during a storm,” this was followed by laughter both from Major Broughton and Captain Hellstrom.

“Your former ship’s surgeon must have been a genius. May I ask how the operation was performed?” His attention was still fixed on the plate, almost as if he was looking at himself in the reflection.

“Well the operation was mostly cutting away all the flesh that couldn’t be saved. The plate itself was a bit of luck actually. No surgeon could have done it. We were transporting... oh what was her title?” He looked at the Captain helplessly, clearly quite distressed that his memory of the lady responsible for saving his life had slipped his mind.

Captain Herriman smiled for a moment, taking a particular delight in his Major’s discomfort before saving him, “Royal Metallurgist,” he said at last.

“Yes! Royal Metallurgist. Lucky stroke really. Without her gift, I would have never survived. She could mold the hardest metal without heat. But what she did in my case was something she had never done before. She actually melded the metal to the bone. It’s as much a part of my skull now as, well, my skull!” He smiled again, the metallic teeth on the back catching the light now as well.

Suddenly his smile faded and he turned to the Captain, practically snarling, “And you, letting me flounder as I tried to remember her title. That will positively be the last time I die for you, Sir!”

This brought laughter from the entire table, which seemed to infuriate the Major more before he finally succumbed and joined in.

When the laughter died down, the Major continued to tell the Doctor the story of the surgery in grisly detail, which seemed to fascinate the old surgeon immensely. The Royal Cartographer, on the other hand, was getting greener by the minute. For a mapmaker, he seemed rather ill at home on ship, and the tale of blood and metal and bone from the Major’s side of the table didn’t seem to be helping.

Captain Hellstrom knew the Major well enough to know this was intentional. The Major was as much an old hand as he and like many old hands, he delighted in making lubbers deposit their dinners on the deck, on their clothes or at least over the side. As someone with his eye on the Admiralty however, the Captain was a bit more tactful with lubbers, especially those who had Her Majesty’s ear.

“I understand you lobbied rather hard to be included on this voyage. I’m afraid we’re ill equipped for dignitaries. Are your quarters satisfactory?” The Captain smiled, seeing the grateful look on the thin man’s green-hued face, he was clearly eager for any distraction from the tales of surgical exploits.

“Oh yes, yes, it’s fine. I just didn’t think the ship would be this... in motion,” at which the gaunt man looked down rather sheepishly, as the Major and First Lieutenant had a laugh at his expense.

“Yes, a ship will acquaint you, and your stomach, with movement in every direction. Just think of it like riding a large horse through the hills during a hunt and you should be fine,” this seemed to comfort the mapmaker enough for him to compose a question of his own.

“And what of you, my good Captain? There seems much about this assignment that must be unfamiliar to you. A military vessel, heading off into the unknown, carrying mapmakers and naturalists, in search of uncharted lands. It’s not the usual mission for a frigate,” he looked around as if he had noticed for the first time that Dr. Greeland hadn’t attended. “Speaking of which, where is the good man responsible for our voyage?”

At this the First Lieutenant broke her companionable silence, “Sleeping off his last night as a free man. I’m afraid he’s as ill-suited to the sea as you, my Lord but he had rather a bit more... shore leave... than you before his departure. ”

The cartographer smiled, turning to the Captain again, “I see. Still, this must be a new experience for you. Especially on this ship, a captured vessel of the Mandelieu, after so many decades on Stalwart.”

The Captain smiled, he thought for a moment that the mapmaker might be trying to get under his skin but his expression belied his genuine curiosity in the many new experiences everyone on board was having to adjust to, “Well, as a member of Her Majesty’s Service, I am not often afforded the luxury of choice. Giving up the Stalwart was difficult, as you said, I had served on her since I was a boy. She was my home. But a forty-year old ship was not going to survive a voyage like this and Her Majesty had commanded me to undertake it. As I had just captured this ship, renamed Constant, I transferred my flag here and promoted my former First Lieutenant to command of the Stalwart.”

At this the cartographer’s eyes lit up, “Ah! So you chose to take command here. And got to pick your successor on your former vessel. Fascinating!”

The Captain smiled, “One of the luxuries afforded a senior Captain from time to time. Especially when given an unusual assignment such as this. And of course, Stalwart was needed to maintain the blockade.”

By the expression on his face, he could see that personally mapping a historic first sighting of a new land wasn’t the only reason the cartographer had lobbied so hard to accompany the voyage himself, it seemed he was an avid reader about the exploits of the navy.

At a crack in the distance though, the reality of the heaving ship once again overtook the literary naval exploits he enjoyed reading, “Oh, no! Not a storm already?”

But Captain Hellstrom was already on his feet, his uniform jacket in his hand as he bolted for the deck, Major Broughton hot on his heels, “That’s not thunder, Sir but a ship’s cannon. Lieutenant Medeirra, see to the safety of our royal passengers and then join me on deck!”

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