Before Broughton could say another word, the Captain was gone, circling around the edge of the camp like some terrible ghost, motioning for Broughton to go the other way with a curt wave of his hand.
Instantly Broughton saw their goal: Sergeant Castillo and the small contingent of marines he had sent to escort the lubbers. Unlike the Doctor and the Cartographer, these men weren’t in the center of the camp but were tied in a clump near the edge. Probably too tough to make a good meal right away, Broughton mused.
They moved quickly, the din of the orgiastic feasting drums and the darkness all the cover they could need. As they got closer, Broughton saw the men’s guns were strewn on the ground near them. The brutes had no idea what they were or the danger they possessed.
If they could get his marines free, they might stand a chance after all. Thankfully the Captain’s reason never fully left him, even in the grip of his worst madness. That, plus a little luck and they might be able make their escape.
The marines stiffened as they felt their crude ropes being cut from behind but made no sound. They knew their lives depended on not drawing the savages’ attention for a few seconds more. At a silent gesture from the major, they picked up their rifles and slipped back into the night, melting unseen from view.
The Captain’s orders were frighteningly specific, “You men will remain outside the light of the campfire while the Major and I free our guests. Guerilla sniping is the order of the day, gentlemen. You are to fire, then change position and reload. That should draw their attention. If I am killed, you are to make your way back to the beachhead and then to the ship.”
And with that he was gone, circling back around toward the edge of the camp closest to Doctor Argonis and the Royal Cartographer. The two stood in perfect silence, their muscles tense, like runners about to begin the race of their lives.
At the crack of the guns they moved, racing to the grisly preparation tables to cut their shipmates free. At first all was confusion, with the Near-Men not even realizing what was causing their companions to fall. At the sight of blood however, everything changed and the chaos turned to carnage.
Some ran right in the direction of the gunners, only to be cut down by a withering hail of fire. Others, however, went right for the Captain and the Major, almost instantly grasping from dozens of raids by rival tribes on their food what was happening.
The Cartographer said nothing as he ran from the camp at a gesture from Major Broughton, sending him into the protection of Sergeant Castillo and the marines. The Doctor though, a dedicated man of sterner stuff, headed straight for a small hut at the center of the camp.
The Captain grabbed his arm, shouting, “Are you mad, man?!? We have to leave! Now!”
Even as he spoke, he punched a charging brute in the face with the basket-hilt of his saber, then cut the creature from collarbone to waist as he tried to rise from the ground.
The Doctor shook free shouting, “My supplies! We found what we needed right before they captured us!”
The Major joined the Captain in the center of the camp, fixing a Near-Man on his bayonet and firing right into his chest at point blank range, kicking the brute free before he began to reload, his hands a blur as they went through motions practiced thousands of times to reload the muzzle-loader.
The Doctor quickly emerged from the shaman’s hut and the three were off, leaving a nightmare of blood and death behind them. What followed was something out of nightmare, a mad chase through the dense jungle, the Major leading the way, everyone trusting in his sense of direction.
Finally, they came into the clearing, the relief at seeing that their companions hadn’t abandoned them almost palpable. The line parted for them as they dashed through, the Major turning toward the jungle, knowing with the fear of a hunted animal that the Near-Men were seconds behind.
“On my mark!”
He watched with satisfaction as the marines moved like well-oiled cogs in a wheel. The ones he had left behind were loaded for bear and raised their rifles immediately, while Sergeant Castillo’s men knelt behind the line, furiously reloading their rifles.
The Captain moved with the Doctor, watching him quickly crush whatever herbs he had found with a mortar and pestle. The old hedge surgeon looked up at him as he applied the foul-smelling concoction to one of Miss Medeirra’s open wounds, “It will take effect quicker in the blood, but probably not quick enough.”
The mass of creatures emerging from the tree line fell as the rifles cracked. Sergeant Castillo’s men handed their rifles to the marines on the firing line, taking the weapons they had just fired to begin reloading them as the creatures came on, driven mad with bloodlust, heedless of their fallen companions.
The Captain watched his first officer as one accustomed to searching for the slightest hint of hope, like a man staring at a black spot on the horizon, praying for land. Her breathing had become more relaxed, slowly but surely, the pain and fear and rage slipping away as the Doctor’s concoction took effect.
At that moment, the creatures reached the line, charging right onto the marines’ bayonets. The line faltered, threatening to break under sheer weight of numbers as Castillo’s men in the rear swung around to the side, cutting another group down with gunfire before engaging with their bayonets.
Suddenly there was a wrenching sound of bending, perhaps even breaking wood. Even the Near-Men stopped for moment to watch in amazement as the Constant surged forward deep into the harbor, much too deep for a ship of her size, before swinging around.
Time seemed to stand still as the ship disappeared in a cloud of beautiful white smoke. Captain Hellstrom reacted first, shouting, “Incoming!” He then dove into the sand of the beach. His men instinctively followed suit, leaving the savages to stare dumfounded at the sight of the tall ship so close in the harbor, a technological wonder nothing in their lives had prepared them for.
Then they were screaming, and dying, as the cannon shot ripped through them with terrible effect. The rifles, though unknown to them, inflicted injuries they could fathom from a lifetime of hunting savagery. This new weapon though, was something they were not prepared for, as it ripped Near-Men apart, spraying his blood and entrails over his companions.
It was then that Broughton’s brigade rose from the sand, like men clawing their way from a grave. At a yell from the Major they charged the Near-Men, despite the fact that they were massively outnumbered. This, combined with the terrible cannon shot that rang still in their ears, was too much for the dumb brutes.
Almost at once, as if a silent order had been given, they broke and ran. The marines chased as far as the tree line then turned back, raising their rifles in the air, letting out lusty screams of triumph in the direction of Constant, their home and today, not for the last time, their salvation.
Except for the major, who stared in silent relief, thanking the Mother as he saw the Doctor covering the body of his beloved Miranda, human once again. He ran to the Captain, looking down at her, “Does she-”
The Doctor snarled, waving him back, “She does, for now. But don’t celebrate yet, and get out of my light!”
The Captain smiled at his friend, startled only for a moment as the enormous man dropped his rifle and hugged him.
The marines were still cheering as the boats arrived from Constant, their shouts of, “All hail the conquering Lieutenant!” and “Castor drinks my ration for the next week!” echoing through the harbor as they made their way back to the ship.
Eventually, only the Captain and the Major were left on the beach, watching the sun sink behind their beloved ship. The Major clapped him on the back and laughed, “You know, she’s beached now and I can’t wait to see how we’re getting that ship out of this lagoon.”
The Captain laughed for only a moment, then frowned as he joined his laughing friend in the last boat off the hell forsaken island, thinking to himself, “How were they going to get the ship out of the harbor?”