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Under a Hunter's Moon
The stars saved her life that evening. Colette Chiyoko Brunet was in her cabin aboard the steamship Vendetta, seated at a small oak table papered with maps, diagrams, newspaper clippings, and agents' reports. The oil lamp swayed on its chain as each wave struck the ship. In her eighteen years of life she had never had an experience more frustrating than this mission. Even the taunting of her fellow French agents, who called her la sorcière ainokothe half-breed witchwas nothing to what she had undergone this night. They would be snorting derisively now if they knew of her failure.
She glared at the papers: a map with several points ticked off, sailors' accounts of sightings of a sea monster or a giant narwhal, and a pencil drawing of a massive metallic fish with the name Ictíneo written below it.
She pressed her fingers against her forehead. What was the answer? What had been sinking the ships in this quadrant? She wanted to tear the documents to shreds. She had spent two weeks on the Vendetta, searching for the "peculiarity" that lurked in the depths. The French government had financed the mission. Ministers believed that the secret of the attacks could unlock some new underwater military weapon for France. Colette had no inkling how they had come to that conclusion. They'd given her a mess of scribbles and madman's tales, nothing more. Did they intend for her to fail?
Calm down. She sat back. Ah, Papa, she thought. Her father had been an artillery captain in the French army and had married her mother, Amaya, during his first visit to Japan. He'd spent his every spare moment training Colette to survive in un monde sévère, a harsh world. The analytical lessons and the discipline stuck early, her mind becoming so sharp it cut through most myths and falsifications. Ah, Papa, I am failing tonight.
An overwhelming sadness consumed her when she thought of her father's death in the Boshin War, on Japanese soil. A land that was half hers. She knew he'd be proud of her, of everything she'd done in her short life. She had risen to a prominent position in the world of French secret agents, despite her ainokohalf French, half Japaneseblood.
Colette stood. Fresh air and a view of the sky would help her focus. She tied up her black hair, wrapped a long sable coat about herself and opened the metal door to her cabin, then tiptoed past the snuffling and snoring sailors in their bunks. Next to them was a locker of rifles. She gently ran her hand across the stock of the last gun, then climbed the iron stairs.
The November wind chilled and awakened her. The deck was deserted, but there was a light in the bridge and an ember glow from the crow's nesta cigarette. Colette imagined that the only others who were awake labored in the engine room, feeding coal to the furnaces to keep the steam engines chugging.
She breathed deeply and strode across the deck, grabbed the rope railing, and gazed out over the Atlantic. She smelled the salt water and heard the splashing waves, but the sea was so dark it was as if they were sailing through ink.
On the outside the Vendetta looked like a research ship, with the crew dressed as ordinary sailors. Colette knew better. They were marines handpicked from the First Regiment of L'infanterie de marine. The rifles were on board in case they had to defend themselves. A ten-pounder gun was hidden under a canvas in the bow of the ship. Hunters had to be prepared to hunt.
She looked to the heavens. Her father had taught her the constellations; she easily picked out la Grande Ourse, and was comforted. She relaxed her mind by triangulating her position in the Atlantic. They had spent the past few days zigging and zagging through the same coordinatesher maps had indicated that the "peculiarity" usually appeared here.
Colette leaned against the railing. The darkness reminded her that she was no closer to finding her prey. Tomorrow, the Vendetta's coal stores would be too low for them to sail further and they would have to return to Marseille in failure. Colette would be laughed out of the position she had fought to win. There were always other agents scheming to take her place.
A shattering noise startled her; then she fell hard against the railing, then to the deck, smashing her head. She lay still for a moment, realizing she'd been inches from plunging to a watery death. The Klaxons sounded and she struggled to her feet, but there was something wrong with her legs. No, not her legsthe deck of the Vendetta listed sharply toward starboard.
"Helm, hard to starboard!" the captain shouted from the bridge.
My papers! she thought. The deck was at such an angle that she would have to climb toward the stairwell. She took a step, leaning forward; then the ship lurched and she slipped and struck the railing again, jarring her ribs.
"Mademoiselle Brunet, are you hurt?" It was a seaman, one hand on a rope, the other extended toward her. Marlin from Cherbourg. The son of a tailor.
She took his warm hand and stood again. "Did we hit an iceberg?"
"Not at this time of year," he said.
"A naval mine?" She hadn't heard an explosion. "What have we struck?"
"Something struck us," another voice said. She turned to see Chief Petty Officer Fortant, holding his balding head, blood seeping down his left cheek. "The hull has been breached!"
"You're injured!" Colette exclaimed.
"It doesn't matter. We've got to move! We're sinking fast!"
"But I must have my papers!"
"No time!" Fortant replied, pulling her toward the line of lifeboats swinging like pendulums on their davits. "Your papers will go down with the ship."
That gave her some solace; at least no one else would read them. Briefly she thought of the lives lost in retrieving those documents from foreign embassies and enemy agents. Such information always had a price.
The ship made a metallic moaning as it listed further. Sailors leapt into the water from the forecastle. The door on the bridge banged open, revealing the captain holding firmly to the wheel, bellowing orders. What few men were able to climb out of the hold lost their footing on the deck and fell headlong into the water.
Marlin was already lowering a lifeboat.
"Get in!" Fortant shoved Colette into the boat and then he and Marlin tumbled in after her. The boat swung wildly.
"What about the sailors below deck?"
"Faster with that rope, seaman!" Fortant said. The lifeboat slipped closer to the water.
"What about the others?" she demanded, working to keep her voice from cracking.
Fortant shook his head. "There is nothing to be done."
She shuddered to think of the sailors in their cots and the engineers and stokers far below in the engine room. At least a hundred men.
Marlin and Fortant worked the ropes, the pulleys squealing. "We don't want to be near the Vendetta when she goes down," Fortant said.
With a lurch they smashed into the side of the ship; to her shame Colette let out a yelp. When they finally hit the water, they were nearly swamped by the splash. The men grabbed oars.
"Row hard, Marlin!" Fortant yelled. "Harder, you dog! She'll suck us down with her."
As their boat rode the waves, Colette looked back at the vast sides of the Vendetta, the stern lifting higher and higher, gleaming wet in the moonlight. The roar of wind and waves could not drown out the desperate cries of the sailors in the water. The lifeboat tossed up and down as they rowed away.
"We'll return for the survivors, once the Vendetta has sunk," Fortant said. "I've never seen a ship go down so fast." His face glistened with fresh blood.
"Let me row! You're still bleeding," Colette said.
"No! I must do it."
Stupid, bullheaded man! she wanted to shout. She shivered; her feet felt much colder than the rest of her body, though she wore good boots. She reached down to touch her feet, then snapped upright. "We're taking on water!"
"Bail!" Fortant yelled.
Colette found a tobacco tin, dumped out its contents, and bailed for all she was worth, but she made no headway. She felt for the breach under the water and was horrified at what she found. "The hole is huge!" she shouted at Fortant.
"There's an emergency kit under your bench!" he grunted.
A metal case was fastened right under the seat. Her hands were frozen, so it took several tries to unlatch it. Inside she felt the handle of a gun, which she yanked out of its clasps.
"Fire the flare! If there are ships out here"Fortant sounded doubtful"they will come."
She held the gun above her head, pointed at the heavens, and pulled the trigger. The light was so bright that she was blinded for a few moments. The flare floated lazily in the sky, reflecting on the water. The Vendetta had disappeared, but in the distance heads bobbed and occasional shouts for help could be heard.
"There are no other boats," Marlin said.
The water was now up to Colette's knees. The three of them bailed as hard as they could, but after a few minutes Fortant fell over. Colette and Marlin pulled him upright.
"We can't save the boat," Fortant sputtered. "Cling to the wreck."
"I'll fire another flare," Colette yelled, and pulled the trigger. What she saw by its light sent a wave of panic through her chest.
Shark fins. They were circling the boat, bright white in the moonlight.
"Mon dieu!" Fortant gasped. "My blood has attracted them! I am sorrythere is only one way to save you." Before Colette or Marlin could grab him, he heaved himself over the side.
"Chief Fortant! Chief Fortant!" Marlin cried, but the chief slowly swam away. He let out a scream and Colette and Marlin heard splashing and thrashing, then nothing more.
The lifeboat went on sinking. "We're too heavy!" Colette shouted. A wave hit, flipping the boat and tossing them into the ocean. The frigid water numbed Colette's thoughts. She flailed around, eyes burning in the salty water. Feeling something solid, she grabbed on to the overturned boat.
Marlin was already clinging to the other side. "Perhaps we've drifted far enough away from the sharks."
Her teeth were clattering too hard to reply.
"Don't kick!" he whispered. "They're attracted to motion."
He needn't have worried. Her legs were already frozen and still. The cold was forcing its way inside her body, cooling her blood, slowing her heart. The ocean was oddly quiet; the men had stopped shouting for help.
"Are they gone?" she said softly, but Marlin replied with a harsh grunt.
"I think one took my foot," he rasped. His eyes were wide with fear. "I'm too numb to be certain."
"Climb higher on the lifeboat!"
"I" Then he was gone, sucked into the depths.
"Marlin? No! No! Where are you? Marlin?"
Something thumped into her leg and she stifled a scream. Don't move! Don't move!
Several shark fins passed near, then turned away. She felt an unexpected sensation, as if she were being lifted up, into the air. Something larger than a shark rose in the water below her.