Ships of Sable, Dark and Swift
It was our fault.
We fled the old gods; fleeing, we drew our pursuers after us, so that the frail and mortal men we hid among were in the shadow of destruction meant for us, to be whelmed by the fury of heaven, and malice of the deep.
Here was the great luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II, an engineering marvel of seventy thousand tons and nine hundred sixty feet, as wealthy as a palace afloat, more opulent than what antique kings in Nineveh lavished on their splendors. For many idle days we five children lolled among the passengers, giddy with freedom as if with wine, and the equatorial sun hovered, weightless gold, above calm, blue Atlantic waves.
That was then. Now it was night, and the stars hid, and the wind howled, and trumpets sounded, echoing across the black abyss of storm-lashed waters. Clouds like boiling floodwaters fell past overhead, and waves like thunderclouds rose and trembled and collapsed down below.
The gods we fled did not want men to see them. The Queen Elizabeth II was struck with slumber: As if that archangel who had entranced Adam on the day when Eve was born without pain from his side had shaken dark wings above the ship, the mortals were drowned in oblivion. No one, young or old, could stir, but lay where chance tumbled him, in cabins or passageways, or heaped at the bottom of ladders.
No one human. I was alert, gripping the broken rail and staring out into the utter darkness.
“Why did you two come back?” I shouted. “I ordered you to abandon ship! We will all die if we don’t follow orders. My orders! Didn’t you vote for me as leader?”
I have heard that there are grown-ups who do not take seriously the ideas about voting, obeying authority, or acting with purpose and discipline. Lucky them. What soft and comfortable lives they must lead! Lives without foes.
Vanity Fair was shorter than me, a dress size smaller, but with more generous hip and bust measurements. We were closer than sisters, having been raised in the same, well, you can call it a jail cell, since that’s what it was. The freezing rain had plastered her hair to her head, and her thin coat tight to her body. She was shivering. Her real name was Nausicaa, of the mythic land called Phaeacia, beyond Earth’s shore, but our real names had been taken from us in youth and, until recently, we had only the names we chose for ourselves as children.
“You are not going to run away and get killed!” She was a green-eyed redhead, and her eyes seemed to glow like emeralds when she was angry. I could see only her silhouette, but from her tone of voice I knew her eyes blazed.
“If the leader orders a retreat, you retreat!” (I was screaming louder than regulation for a British military officer, but I was still new at this, and was outshouting the storm-wind.)
Colin mac FirBolg was blue-eyed, with unruly hair and ruddy skin, built like a wrestler. He gave me a stiff-armed Roman salute. “Sieg Heil, mein Obergruppenfräulein! But we thought you were dead! Didn’t Echidna kill you?”
Vanity hissed, “Stupid! No matter how far away, she hears whenever her name is spoken! Speaking summons her!”
Colin shrugged. “Is she going to get through that fleet?” To me, he said: “Besides, Leader, we came to report that your dumb order could not be carried out. We are entirely surrounded, cut off, doomed, so we can’t retreat! There may be time for a quickie, though, so if I can suggest, without seeming insubordinate, ma’am—I mean, you don’t want me to die a virgin, do you?”
Thunder drowned out any words I might have spoken back. I slapped him. I could hear the smack of my palm on his not-quite-shaven cheek even above the storm.
“Thank you, ma’am! May I have another!” he barked out, unperturbed, still holding his Nazi salute. His real name was Phobetor, son of Morpheus, and he was a dream-lord of Cimmeria, the sunless world.
Even if he meant it in mockery, his stiff bearing reminded me I had no time for anger. We were within minutes of recapture, and if I was the leader, I had to invent the plan and give the orders.
If we failed, we failed under my leadership. It would be my fault.
Giddy with freedom, we had been! Because all our lives had been spent on the orphanage grounds, behind pitiless walls, under strictest watch, beneath the tutelage of Boreas. He could pass for human, but Headmaster Boggin, as we called him, had been the North Wind himself. My real father, a sovereign of some ulterior dimension, never knew his daughter, did not raise me: Boreas, my enemy, did.
A flash of lightning lit the sea for a frozen moment, dazzling, burning.
I was expecting to see Echidna. Echidna, the mother of all monsters, who had dragged the giant luxury ship into these unearthly waters, had been looming over the rail just a moment ago, her beautiful maiden’s face cold with tearless grief and scaly snake-tail swollen with scorpion poison. She had raised that sting to kill me, but had spared my life because I shed a tear for her dead son. Then, she turned and dove beneath the waves when I whispered the name of the war-god who had slain him.
Perhaps she was somewhere in the deep, brooding on revenge, her huge bulk drowned in fathoms below fathoms, her long snaky body, furlong after furlong, writhing. But my special powers were blind, and I did not see her.
Instead I saw the fleet. There were at least a dozen barges, larger than oil tankers, built like stepped pyramids, with shields on every deck, and cannons, arbalests, catapults, and ballistae behind every shield, and both upper and lower decks had raised gangplanks with iron teeth built along the bottom, like a siege-tower at sea. The barges were made of some black wood or metal that shone darkly in the lightning flash, mountains of iron. Even from here I could hear the drumbeats counting time for the oars. At the apex of each tall barge, strung between two tall poles that jutted up and diverged, was a triangle of storm-beaten cloth. The cloth was black and on its field, in red, was a circle with an arrow coming from it at an angle.
It was the armada that Lord Mavors, whom the Greeks worshipped as Ares and the Romans as Mars, sent for us. Perhaps he was here, and Echidna hunted him; perhaps it was merely his men, and the unearthly flesh-eating Laestrygonians.
Between these barges and the ocean liner, slender as spears in the water, was a flotilla of black ships. They were as light and swift as racing sculls, but each one held fifty men or more, with shields hung along the rail, Viking-style. Each one had a sloping nose ending with an iron-beaked ram, and red eyes painted on the narrow hulls to each side of the ram.
Boreas raised us, I should say, in a second childhood. Either by magic, or by science unknown on Earth, we had been forced out of our original forms and made into children. Having robbed us of our memories and homes, the Olympians held us hostage against uneasy peace with Chaos. The plan would have worked, except that we adapted to human shape too well; the impersonation was so perfect that normal human biology, normal emotions, began to grow in us. The plan would have worked, except that we grew up.
The orphanage had been designed to contain monster cubs from Chaos: five children. It could not hold five adults, raised as human, with the dreams and ideals of humans, but armed with the strange powers of adult chaoticists. We grew up. We wanted our freedom. By stealth and cunning and violent battle, we had won it.
And the first thing we did when we won our freedom was . . . Well, we took a cruise. (Come on. Wouldn’t you?)
We should have just fled to a desert island. All these humans were about to die, and it was our fault.
My friends were about to die, and it was my fault.
I said to them, “Where are Quentin and Victor?”
Colin said, “Ma’am! They took off in a lifeboat, like you said!”
Victor had always been the one in charge, back at the orphanage, back when we were young students together. (How long ago had that been? A week? Less?) He was the logical one, cold-bloodedly brave, dispassionate, determined. Somehow I had won the last show of hands, and the group was now counting on me. So I had to be Victor.
So get a grip. Square your shoulders and start barking out orders. They don’t have to make sense; they just have to get the group moving. Tell the troops the leader is leading. Say something.
So I said, “Vanity! Call your magic silver ship over to the other side of the liner. Once the three of us are on your ship, have her find the lifeboat Victor and Quentin are in. If they haven’t been captured already.”
She could summon her ship by thought alone. The Phaeacian ships had neither pilot nor rudder, but understood the unspoken wishes of their masters, and sped as swift as winged falcons, swift as thought, to their destinations. Vanity had discovered the Argent Nautilus was her very own ship, a Greek trireme with painted eyes port and starboard, and she did not need to be aboard to give commands to her.
Vanity said, “I don’t know. The ship goes where I tell her. But if I say, ‘Find Victor,’ can she find Victor?” Vanity shook her head sadly and, for a moment, looked very sober and grown up. “We should have performed experiments, found out what we can and cannot do, instead of spending New Year’s Eve on a cruise ship, living it up with the money you stole from Taffy ap Cymru!”
Taffy had been one of the staff at the school, a member of one of the several factions of Olympians seeking to take possession of us away from our headmaster, Boreas.
“I didn’t steal it!” I protested. “I blackmailed him fair and square! Her. Whatever.”
Taffy was a shape-changer like us: her real name was Laverna, the Roman goddess of Fraud. She had been the henchman (henchwoman?) of Trismegistus, the trickster god the Greeks worshipped under the name Hermes.
But I hadn’t actually blackmailed the money from her. She had scoffed at my attempt and given it to me. Strange. That had happened just after Lamia, the Queen of Vampires, had attempted to murder Quentin. As if Laverna had wanted to help us escape. Why? And was she really working for Trismegistus or Mavors? Did Mavors want us to escape?
At some point, when I had time to think, I should puzzle that one out.
I turned to Colin. “Are your powers working?”
“Locked and loaded and ready to rumble!” Colin grinned, flexing his big rawboned hands as if eager for mayhem. Who understands boys?
Who, for that matter, understands any of us?
We each came from a different version of Chaos, a different paradigm. Our minds somehow interpreted the supernatural with mutually exclusive explanations. What looked to me like fluctuations of mind-body monads of timespace in the fourth dimension, Colin saw as passions, Quentin saw as magic, Victor saw as matter in motion.
We each could manipulate the Unknown in our own way: Colin’s anger made him strong, his elation made him fly, and his disbelief made him able to unmake deadly wounds and brush them away; Quentin summoned up fell spirits from the night world with words of power, and bound them to his service in circles of chalked sigils and the scents of talismanic candles; Victor could electromagnetically reorganize matter and energy in his environment; I could deflect gravity, walk through walls, or send my many senses ranging through the higher dimensions.
Each one could negate one other. I could reach through the fourth dimension to alter the internal nature of any atoms Victor programmed, and he could neither see nor understand what I did. His Newtonian universe did not even have words for the relativistic principles I used. An azure ray from Victor’s third eye could banish Quentin’s thaumaturgy as quickly as a skeptic’s question quiets a table tipper. With a wave of his charming wand, Quentin’s unseen familiars could banish Colin’s passions. And Colin could simply will my powers to stop.
Vanity was different. She was not a princess of Chaos held hostage, but a princess of allies the Olympians did not trust, an ancient and immortal race called the Phaeacians. She (and, we had reason to believe, her people) could find secret doors through solid walls, and passages beyond leading to distant realms. These secret paths always looked as if they were natural and contemporary, as if they had been built there long ago: And yet I suspected they were made, as suddenly as the details in a dream are made.
And the laws of nature varied from realm to realm, and the Phaeacians could erect barriers to prevent one set of laws from being enforced out of its realm, or part the barrier to permit it. One other power they had, stranger than the others: Phaeacians could tell when someone was watching, no matter what means were used.
Yet even all these superhuman, supernatural powers did not make them supreme of the races of Cosmos. They were a conquered people.
The Olympians could manipulate destiny as adroitly as the Phaeacians manipulated space. A god of Olympos need only decree the outcome he desired from the future, and somehow the step-by-step details, the coincidences needed to bring that chain of events about would be created to suit. With this power, they could dictate the desired outcome of battles and love affairs, the progress of industry, the direction of philosophical and scientific inquiry, the verdict of trials or negotiations . . . anything there was for a god to control, they could control. They conquered lesser races who had powers like ours, cyclopes and sirens, maenads and meliads.
In the same way I could overrule Victor’s paradigm, so could a siren; in the same way Victor could negate Quentin’s powers, so could a cyclopes. We were really safe only when we were together and used all our talents in combination.
Which meant that the first order of business was . . .
Colin. He was the only one whose powers worked here, now. Colin was our best hope.
There was a sobering thought.
Copyright © 2007 by John C. Wright. All rights reserved.