Fri 1 Apr 2011
We know this much: Death is an evil. We have the Gods’ word on it; they too would die if death were a good thing. – Sappho
Even grayed by the morning haze, Vesuvius still dominated the horizon of Naples’ harbor, dwarfing the merely human activity below. The city still drowsed in the dawn, for the most part, with only the harbor showing signs of industry. A small, mobile forest of masts passed westward as the fishing fleet chased the retreating gloom and schools of anchovy. They’d swarmed around bigger ships riding at anchor, merchantmen of every description awaiting their turn at pierside or on the change of tides to depart. They’d given wide berth to the unfamiliar white-hulled warship that had appeared there.
Corney could appreciate the poetry of the scene even through the billows of coal dust the ship gave off while fueling. Everything would be dirty for a while.
Corney watched a bewildered figure in dress blues searched the dust-blackened deck. The little round officer with the little round face had clambered aboard the wrong ladder, apparently arriving with the morning’s coal. He saluted his way aboard and began asking questions of everyone nearby. Corney eventually took pity on him and spoke up.
“You’re Reed? Welcome aboard Atlanta,” he said. “I’m Horace Corney, Captain Whelan’s second. You’d be our new Olympian Affairs man, then.”
The young man looked plainly horrified. “Yes, sir. Lieutenant Jefferson Reed, sir. Thank you, and I have dispatches.” He offered a sealed envelope, twisting out of the way of another passing sack of coal.
Corney merely glanced at the orders with a grimace. “No doubt. Deliver those to the Ship’s Yeoman on your way to get changed.”
“You’ll want to get out of those dress blues soonest, Mister Reed. Even if we were not in haste to be underway, everyone works on Atlanta during coaling.”
“You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.” Corney returned Reed’s awkward salute, and briefly watched the younger officer pick his way around the filthy deck and the swarming filthy crew.
Corney shared a conspiratorial chuckle with some of the men, then bent to his hand truck, and began moving coal sacks again.
There were no coal sacks in the way by the time Reed reappeared, though plenty of evidence of their passing remained. Like every other United States navy warship, USS Atlanta had her hull painted white, and her topworks and masts painted the dull gold the Navy called “buff.” The elevations between her weather deck and perhaps twice a man’s height were all stained black or nearly so. Teams of sailors swept Atlanta‘s teak decks in advance of other teams coming through with swabs, buckets and holystones. The ship still looked as if it had been tarred, but that was slowly changing.
“Delayed, Mr. Reed?” Corney said when the young man had presented himself. “I was beginning to think we’d have weighed anchor by the time you’d finished changing uniforms.”
“No excuse, sir.” Reed adjusted his spectacles, and did look truly mortified. Corney handed him a deck broom rather than continue chastising him. It was too much like kicking a puppy, and besides, there was a lot of work to do yet.
The tide was ebbing, and Atlanta was leaving with it. The dirty, already-exhausted crew formed into sea details to cast off of the cruiser’s collection of coal barges, lighters, and bumboats that had rafted up around her during her brief stay in Naples. The ship’s twin stacks streamed thin ribbons of brown-black smoke, slowly consuming the coal they’d worked all morning to bring aboard. Her sails remained furled, the brig rig she carried protected against the dirt and embers emitted from the furnaces deep belowdecks. Slowly, the great steam-powered capstan devoured links of chain until the anchor emerged, bearded with weed and streaming mud, to be hosed off and secured beside the sloping ram bow.
Speed built under the muffled hammer of pistons, and soon Naples was indistinct in the haze. Even the great volcano looked flat and unreal with distance. The boatswain rang eight bells, noon.
The wardroom was all temporary finery, expensive wood paneling that could be removed quickly during action to reduce the fire risk. None of its martial concessions were noticeable as Atlanta‘s off-duty officers crowded around the long central table.
From his seat at the end of the table, Corney watched the other officers’ varying degrees of curiosity regarding Reed. Underway, the higher formalities of etiquette were foregone, and the officers took lunch without Corney having to preside much. Wardroom stewards in starched whites bustled around the informal business of taking Reed’s measure.
“I understand you were recently attached to the Chicago, Mr. Reed?” Crawford, one of the engineering officers, asked around his coffee.
“Yes,” Reed replied. “Captain Mahan put me ashore here in Naples a week ago, on the notion that I could be of more use with my ear to the ground locally, so to speak.”
“Perhaps you could have kept your ear there, and the rest of you,” said the chaplain. “Spread all this Greek heathen business elsewhere than on our ship.”
Corney had expected a challenge from the chaplain, who’d bent their ears about his opinions of this Greek business for months. Corney didn’t stop what was happening, even though the tone of the conversation was turning ungentlemanly. Reed needed this opportunity.
If Reed was insulted, he suppressed it completely, instead brightening and speaking up. “Oh, Olympian Affairs isn’t about proselytizing, Lieutenant…?”
“Sears, Gideon Sears.”
“How do you do,” he continued. “It’s neither the position of the Navy Department nor that of the government as a whole to treat manifestations of the Olympians with any religious significance. Rather, they are officially foreign powers.”
Corney gave the chaplain a warning look. “It’s the first time on the Mediterranean Station for most of the crew, myself included, Mr. Reed.” He pushed his roast beef around on his plate a bit before continuing. “Captain Mahan displayed considerable foresight, given the emergence of this Kathcarte business. Can you elaborate on the situation beyond the cable we received in Gibraltar?”
“There’s little to add.” Reed looked contemplatively at the overhead as he ticked off points on his fingers. “SS Lanie Kathcarte, a side-wheel steamer registered to a private American owner in Pensacola, reported overdue on return from the Levant. Eighteen souls on board, and if the manifest can be believed, a cargo of olive oil, Egyptian linen, and sundry foodstuffs.”
“Is there a reason you think the manifest should not be believed?”
It was Reed’s turn to regard his meal without eating. “Without desiring to speak ill of our countrymen, there are a considerable number of entrepreneurs openly trafficking in Ottoman loot. This Lanie K bears all the signs of a ship engaged in exactly that.”
Crawford spoke up again. “And you disapprove of the practice, Reed? I can’t help but think it’s a case of the Turks reaping what they’ve sown.”
“The Ottomans have been in chaos since Olympian intervention in the Greek revolution,” Reed said, grim. “Sixty years of earthquakes, lightning from cloudless skies, to say nothing of the extraordinary creatures. Civilization in all of Anatolia has essentially broken down. The refugee situation is appalling all over the Balkans.”
“Nothing good comes from all this Greekiness,” Sears grumbled. “Hasn’t done the Greeks themselves much good either, has it?”
“No,” Reed said. “There was really no hope for a unified Greek republic, even with the Ottomans in retreat. The individual Olympians have too much of themselves invested in particular locations, and still bicker with each other.”
“As I’ve heard it said,” Corney cut in, “the fact that they remain only interested in this end of the Mediterranean is a good thing. Otherwise, they’d be running riot all over the world.” Corney’s grandfather had had his own fears about pagan gods turning up over Kentucky back in the Thirties when this mess had started.
“Good for everyone except the locals, sir.” Reed said.
“In good time,” Sears said, “everything will be put to rights. False gods or no. In ten years, it will be nineteen hundred years of Christendom, and I can’t expect the Second Coming far behind all this heathen uprising.”
“You’re a millennialist, Mr. Sears?” Reed countered.
“Methodist, Mr. Reed. But fabulous events today cannot help but presage tumultuous times ahead.”
“Gentlemen, you’ll excuse me,” Corney said, pushing back his chair. “I must relieve Captain Whelan on the bridge. All of you getting your hopes up for lighter watch rotation, I’m afraid I must disappoint. Mister Reed is to remain off the list, and permanently on call in case we encounter any supernatural difficulty.”
The conning tower perched atop the forward end of Atlanta‘s armored casemate, a large metal cylinder with slits cut in at eye height. Corney opened the heavy steel hatch and climbed out onto Atlanta‘s open bridge. Out on the wing the captain stood motionless in his officer’s greatcoat, despite the warm Mediterranean morning.
Michael Whelan had, like the majority of his crew, never been on the Med Station before, and had confided a great deal of anxiety to Corney upon receipt of their posting. That tension had not been eased by the arrival of Reed.
“I’m here to relieve you, sir.”
“Mister Corney,” Whelan said by way of greeting, checking his pocket watch.
“The officers have received Reed’s assessment of our orders.”
“Have they received mine?”
“They have not, sir.”
Corney thought he might have detected the slightest crinkling of the captain’s beard. “You have remarkable foresight and forbearance. My opinions of this twice-cursed business do not bear repeating outside my cabin.”
Corney cast a worried glance back towards the conning tower, to where the helmsman could very likely have heard, even without the benefit of the speaking tube. “As you will, sir.”
“It is most certainly not as I will. Were that the case, we’d be comfortably pierside in New York, or Boston, or even Norfolk. Certainly not playing sheepdog to unaccountable merchantmen in this blighted sea. It’s all well and good to have King Neptune and mermaids and such in stories; they are considerably less welcome out here in the waking world.”
“Well sir, should the Olympian entities leave their proper state of being comfortably imaginary, we shall have Mr. Reed’s expertise at piloting those particular rocks and shoals.”
“Has Reed acquitted himself in your eyes since his arrival, Commander?” Whelan maintained an eye on the indistinct horizon, picking out sights with his spyglass now and again.
Corney leaned against the lifeline crowning the conning tower’s roof, considering. “He’s certainly a fount of book knowledge, and is confident in his element. He seems more professorial than martial. He certainly has strong opinions on the Turkish situation.”
“Though strong opinions do not necessarily speak of strong character, I am glad to see that there is at least some fire in the man. He’s a line officer, he should carry himself as such.”
“Of course, sir. Let us hope that we do not put that to the test on this cruise.”
“Swimmer!” came the call down from the foretop. “Man in the water, one point forward of the starboard beam!”
Whelan rotated his glass out to the indicated bearing, and Corney snapped his out to follow. “A swimmer?” Corney muttered. “We’re miles out.” He found the disturbance in the water, several cables away. A swimmer indeed, leaping along as fast as a porpoise. Other features were visible clearly at this distance: long, seaweed-green hair and olive skin that wouldn’t look out of place on any woman from these shores. And woman indeed the newcomer was. “Finn!” he shouted up to the lookout. “Clean your glass! Unless I miss my mark, that’s no man!”
There was laughter from the decks and tops alike, and a scowl from Whelan. Corney knew he was too familiar with the crew for the Captain’s formal sensibilities.
The captain studied the figure splashing toward them in the distance with no more visible reaction than the spruce of the mast. “It appears Lieutenant Reed will be called upon to practice his scholarly trade sooner than his leadership. I’ll keep the bridge, Mr. Corney. Fetch Reed and see to this. Things are going a bit Greeky on us already.”
“Aye, sir.” Corney snapped his glass shut, replacing it in its case. Corney vanished down-ladder as quickly as possible to find Reed. Down on the deck, he’d gotten two good paces before Reed emerged from the casemate in his path.
“Sir!” Reed said. “Someone said they’d seen a mermaid.”
“Someone, indeed. Everyone topside has, Mr. Reed.” Corney impatiently indicated the sailors lining the starboard rail. “And mermaid or not, it’s headed for us. I assume you speak enough Greek or whatever to communicate with these things.”
Reed fell into step behind him. ” It’s commonly held that they speak any language. When they wish to be understood, that is.”
“‘Commonly held?’ Have you never spoken to one of these creatures before?”
“Certainly not, sir. But there are extensive records.” Reed had produced his own spyglass, one of the newer binocular types. “Not a mermaid,” Reed said after a moment’s observation. “Sea nymph. A Nereid, not an Oceanid. This will be her territory we’re passing through.”
Corney was about to query Reed further when Atlanta took heavy spray over the bow, a gaudy white jet that should have moved the ship violently. When it all finished crashing to the deck, the woman stood brazenly among the onlookers.
Onlooking was suddenly a popular activity. The intruder was as undressed as she’d appeared to be from a distance. Corney fought both his gentlemanly instinct to look away, and his ungentlemanly instinct to keep staring. He saluted. “Welcome aboard USS Atlanta, Ma’am.”
The Nereid looked at him with dreamy, glassy blue-green eyes that didn’t seem to have pupils. Her uneven grin spoke of nothing but madness to Corney. He’d originally assumed that the creature was merely sure-footed on the moving deck, but on closer inspection, he could see that she was not maintaining her balance so much as floating in place, drifting this way and that as the ship rolled under her. Even with years of duty at sea, it made Corney a little queasy to watch. He had almost forgotten he was awaiting her to speak when she finally did so.
“Blind, Atalanta was
But not sightless.
Is this eyeless ship
A mockery of her plight
Or a gift to her fair tormentor?”
Corney felt Reed’s eyes on him as he considered what to say in response. The eyes of the sailors motionless on deck were all for their visitor’s uncovered charms.
“She’s referring to the fact that there are no eyes painted on the ship, sir,” Reed said very softly beside him, almost without moving his lips. “And I think she’s mistaken ‘Atlanta’ for ‘Atalanta.'”
Corney gave up looking at the Nereid’s featureless blue eyes, and executed a parade turn. “Mr. Reed, see to negotiations and keep me informed.” He stepped away and stood with Reed between himself and the otherworldly visitor.
“Daughter of Proteus,” Reed began, “this crew begs your indulgence at our passage through your waters. Let our-”
“Indulgence? So deep a concern
When even the Gods go thirsty.” The Nereid’s eyes bored in on Reed, never moving though the rest of her swayed drunkenly.
“Commander Corney!” he said, less shakily. “May I trouble you for a moment, sir?”
“Yes, Mister Reed?” Corney pretended to be further from the Nereid than he was.
“I need a bottle of wine from the wardroom spirits locker, and some kind of dish or cup to pour it into. The fancier-looking, the better, sir. And I can’t leave my position here.”
Corney looked from his junior officer to the creature standing near him. “Very well, Mr. Reed, hold your station. I will return shortly.”
If he’d had to break into the ship’s silver, he’d have done so, but Corney found the leading Wardroom attendant with that locker already open, busily polishing up. He grabbed an engraved loving cup over the attendant’s protests and the nearest bottle, and ran back up the ladder to the weather deck.
The crowd about Reed and the seanymph had already drawn Captain Whelan’s ire, and his commands, shouted through a bullhorn, were only gradually dispersing it. Sailors who’d been keen to take a closer look at their visitor’s features found something else to do as Corney charged in, a vision of the captain’s bellows made tangible.
“Mr. Reed,” said Corney, handing over the cup and bottle, which he only now noticed read “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” There was no time to look for another bottle. “I must have a word with every man out here, so proceed smartly.” Corney gave warning looks at the nearest of the culprits skylarking at the scene.
“Oh, daughter of the sea,” Reed began, popping the cork, “accept this sacrifice for our trespass, and token of our thanks for safe passage.” Reed poured out a measure of the bottle. Moving uncertainly to the breakwater, he cast the golden contents of the cup onto the waves.
The Nereid had followed him.
“And what to Aphrodite,” she said, “Thoughtless in your affront
Do you offer to love
To mend this insult?”
Reed appeared to be stymied.
The Nereid had her own idea. Lightning-quick, she snatched the whiskey bottle from Reed’s hand, took a long pull on it. The surprise and delight in her eyes was the most human-looking expression Corney had seen of a supernatural creature yet. Without a further word, she leaned over the edge of the breakwater and vanished without a splash into the bow wave, bottle and all.
“Mister Reed!” Corney shouted. “Report, if you please.”
Reed seemed to shake a torpor and hurried back across the deck. There was no further sign of their visitor, for which Corney was grateful. The world had gone back to being as solid and predictable and normal as the eight-inch rifle behind him.
“Sir,” Reed began, “the, uh, entity has accepted our sacrifice. So it seems, at any rate.”
“‘Seems?’ Are we in order or not?”
“Aphrodite is one of the least-observed of the Olympians in modern times, sir. I have no recorded precedent to follow.”
“Very well. Please try and remember that you have military duties in addition to your special expertise. I do not intend to see mass disorder allowed among the ratings, no matter how fair a distraction may present itself.”
“Yes, sir. And thank you for the swift response, sir.”
“Should this sort of bribery be thought of as normal, Mr. Reed? Should we have a crate of wine ready to hand for the watch officer to hand out in the future?”
“I could only guess that it would be prudent, sir. Sacrifices of livestock have also been proven effective, though I doubt seriously it would be worth the inconvenience of keeping them alive on board for the purpose.”
“As do I,” Corney said grimly. “See to it. Inform the chief steward you have my authority to do so.”
“I’ll return this cup to the wardroom, then.”
A wild-eyed Lieutenant Sears halted Reed in mid-salute. “You’ll return it to the ship’s chapel, where I can clean the pagan profanity from my communion cup!”
Corney looked at the silver cup, which he’d assumed was some kind of trophy. It had a cross engraved on it, and a Navy eagle.
“Not enough,” Sears continued, “that you bribed that filthy naked harlot for passage that’s by rights free, but also felt the need to use the Lord’s own symbols to do it with!”
Reed spluttered as Sears took the cup from him.
“Mr. Sears,” Corney said, “I selected your communion cup from the wardroom attendant as the most expeditious solution at hand. We will make other arrangements in advance next time.”
Sears did not seem assuaged by Corney’s defense. His eyes widened further, seeming to near-bursting. “Spirits! You served liquor out of the ship’s chalice? Would you like to borrow my cassock, in case you need something soft to fornicate on with the next one?”
“Mr. Sears!” Commander Corney put some steel into his voice. “That will be all.”
Sears fairly seethed, and Reed still seemed in shock.
“Lay below, gentlemen, the both of you. You are causing a scene before the men, and I won’t have it.”
Atlanta cruised on, the ocean around her tranquil as a pond.
The wardroom was subdued, the bad blood between Reed and Sears over the last two days dampening most of the usual conversation. The expected argument fizzled, to the disappontment of the other officers. Reed remained withdrawn and Sears simply muttered to himself.
Lieutenant-commander Corney stepped in to stimulate conversation.
“Mister Reed,” he began, mopping up gravy from the evening meal with a piece of biscuit, “educate us on a point of mythology. Why would this sea creature care so very much to intervene on behalf of Aphrodite? Unless I misremember my classics, shouldn’t they be under King Neptune’s command?”
“And why’d they make off with a whole bottle of Bourbon?” added Carey, the aged First Lieutenant. There was a general murmur of agitation about this last point. All were mindful of the increasing difficulty of getting spirits aboard.
“Order, gentlemen. Proceed, Mr. Reed.”
Reed looked grateful for the opportunity, despite the dyspeptic expression on Chaplain Sears. “I’ve been consulting my library on this very point,” he began quietly. “The Nereids actually predate the Olympians, cosmologically. They are issue from the Titan era, daughters of Proteus and Doris. As for their affinity with Aphrodite, she is a sea deity as well as being the goddess of love and beauty. There’s no definite connection between them, though mariners have successfully appealed to Aphrodite since the Olympian Re-Emergence.”
Reed warmed to his subject. “The 1873 shipwreck of an Orient Line packet shows some inkling of the complexities involved. Rajput Star was put on the rocks off Crete by unnatural means. Three different governments made entreaties to release the crew, to no avail. It wasn’t discovered until later that representatives from London, Paris, and Istanbul were all negotiating with different entities.”
Puzzled faces ringed the table. Corney noticed that even the usually detached stewards had stopped to look.
“In any case,” Reed continued, looking self-conscious again, “that was the modern origin of Olympian Affairs as a trade.”
“Seeds of dissolution, you mean,” said Sears, unable to bear any more quietly.
“It’s not so unprecedented,” Reed countered. “Look at the Shellback ceremony when ships cross the Equator. Even the breaking of a champagne bottle when a ship is launched is essentially a sacrifice to ensure the good fortune of the vessel.”
“Nonsense! That’s harmless tradition, not the literal negotiation with pagan spirits.”
“Do you think the crew would agree?” Reed countered. “How would even a modern and educated sailor react if he were informed that those ‘harmless traditions’ were being dispensed with?”
The officers leaned in, thankful their anticipated entertainment was once again in play. Corney felt as if he were at a tennis match.
“If there were a righteous man wearing a chaplain’s tabs on board, one would hope he would reassure them with their native faith,” Sears said, sitting tall, “and not cater to their superstitions.”
“What’s more native than superstition?”
“Are you suggesting, Mister Reed, that any childish belief is equal to the faith of one’s fathers?”
“I would advance, Mister Sears, that what happened off the Neapolitan coast was not a childish belief, but a very real and tangible event.”
“You’re evading the issue, Mister Reed!”
A very damp midshipman entered the wardroom. “With compliments, sirs, the anchor detail is being set. Athens is in sight.” The thumping of the engines had slowed, unnoticed until now.
“No doubt gentlemen, this conversation will continue,” said Corney, rising. “But for now, to our tasks.”
Piraeus slept in the darkening drizzle, far fewer lights showing than in Naples. The rebuilt Parthenon wasn’t visible in the gloom, but Corney could feel its presence. The single most visible symbol of the Olympians cast a shadow over the entire Middle Sea.
Tired but at least occupied, Horace Corney paced the wet decks as Officer of the Deck. He had no martyr complex that made him take extra watches, nor did he have any particular drive to ingratiate himself with his subordinates. In truth, he simply found inaction to be galling.
“Sir,” said a rating who’d hustled up to his side carrying a lantern, “I think you’d better come forward. There’s an angel sitting on the bow gun.”
“An angel, you say?”
“Yessir. With wings, and everything.”
Corney scowled. “Very well, Welsh. Go below, and wake Mr. Reed. If it’s really an angel, it seems we’ll need Chaplain Sears, as well. Oh, and inform the Captain as well.” Perhaps the fireworks weren’t over for the day, after all. He hoped it wasn’t actually an angel. Mysteries were much more satisfying when they stayed mysterious.
The masthead light was weaker than moonlight, but as Corney made his way around the Atlanta‘s armored casemate he clearly saw a figure standing atop the massive barbette rifle: a figure with wings. He straightened his cap and overcoat, and doubted if his days at Annapolis had really prepared him for this.
The figure was at least clothed this time, though if the light had been better, the wet silk she wore would have caused as much commotion as the naked Nereid. Her wings were dirty gray, a gull’s wings, not the white that years of paintings had led him to expect. On her head, cast back at an angle of studied casualness, was an antique-looking Grecian crested helmet.
Corney sighed. The helmet sealed it; she was no angel.
He saluted the winged woman. “Welcome aboard USS Atlanta, Ma’am.”
“Your man ran from me,” she said, gaze fixed overhead on the masthead light. Her voice was cool as notes on crystal. “Do they all take their inspiration from the ship’s fleet-footed namesake? My lady has no time for cowards.”
“I’m afraid there’s been another misunderstanding, Ma’am. It’s not ‘Atalanta.’ She’s named for something else.”
The woman looked down at him, head cocked to one side at an angle that made Corney wonder how the helmet stayed on, pushed back like that.
“You certainly do not lack for boldness,” she said, and hopped down from the gun. “Yet if you neither serve nor spite sea-born Aphrodite, what drives you to this place so far from your home?”
Face to face, the woman was as tall as he was. She looked him in the eye, as if daring him to flinch. Her eyes were as gray as her plumage, hard but more human-looking than the sea nymph’s had been. She spoke a great deal more comprehensibly, too.
“Our affair is rescue, Madam. Our countrymen are feared lost, and we are on the way to rescue them.”
“Ah. Heroism.” The woman tapped her pursed lips, contemplative again.
“Heroics are for stories, madam. We have duties to perform.”
There was a commotion behind Corney, coming closer. Two men were walking about as un-quietly as could be imagined.
“Good of you to join us, Mr. Sears, Mr. Reed,” Corney said without looking back. “I have need of one or both of your fields of expertise.”
“Oh blast, look at it. This is one of yours, Mr. Reed.” Sears was not entirely successful at keeping his disappointment in check. “Perhaps she’s after our brandy.”
“Yes. She’s a Nike, sir. One of the handmaidens of Pallas Athena and a bearer of the tidings of victory.” Reed dropped some of the stack of books he was carrying to the deck, causing additional ruckus.
Corney didn’t look back. “‘One of?’ Not a singular? I thought Nike was a goddess in her own right.”
“That was the common thought until they began turning up, sir.”
“Very well, Mr. Sears. You are dismissed. Herd that lot back to their bunks on your way.” Corney pointed to the dimly-lit faces of the crew appearing around every hatchway and gunport.
“Aye, and gladly, sir.” Sears withdrew, loosening the collar on his dress jacket and getting ready for some good old-fashioned hollering.
“Shall I, sir?” Reed seemed to have his spectacles adjusted finally, and a passage in one of his reference books selected.
“Stay ready to hand to advise, Mr. Reed.” Corney returned to the woman, who still seemed lost in thought.
“Heroes,” she repeated softly.
Corney cleared his throat diplomatically.
“I cannot promise you a victory,” the Nike said, as if she’d never paused, “for the way before you is likely to be twisted indeed. My lady cannot offer you passage, but she does share the gift of wisdom. Old rivalries are in play. You are well to avoid taking either of their sides, or accepting either of their favors. Yet, in the crisis, even this may not save you.”
“Rivalries between whom, Ma’am?”
“Aphrodite Sea-Born and Poseidon Earth-Shaker, of course,” she said. “The gods may not forgive, nor forget, but they can sometimes overlook. Be quick about your task. The bold can achieve much beneath the notice of Olympus.”
Corney was about to ask another question when she unfurled her wings, huge and silent, and launched herself up into the misty night. In two beats, she was beyond the illumination of the masthead.
“Sir, that’s the longest statement anyone’s received from a Nike in fifty years,” Reed said. He was shaky and pale.
“There’s more, if your pen is ready.” Corney laid out the whole of the conversation as he remembered it. “Make sure that’s recopied, we’ll need it for the logs,” he added.
“Commander, I’d just like to thank you for the opportunity to-”
“Later, Mr. Reed. I must report to the captain.”
The rain had cleared by dawn tide, fractured into scudding puffs of cloud that did little to mar the blue Aegean skies. Atlanta was doing her best in that regard, great rivers of smoke pouring from her funnels as the ship attempted to make good on the Olympian hint towards haste. Dolphins played in the twin cataracts of the bow wave ploughed aside by the ram. At thirteen knots, the Levantine coast was only two days away.
They had no other direction. Inquiries about the port had unearthed no news of the missing Lanie K.
“All we needed,” Captain Whelan had grumbled from his bunk after hearing Corney’s report. “Someone else telling us to hurry up. First admirals in Washington, now an angel.”
“Mister Reed says she was a-”
“I heard you, Mister Corney. I’m not interested in the specific, that’s what Reed’s for. What’s this world come to? And what was all that business about heroes?”
Corney stared out the porthole at the blue Aegean. “Some pagan obsession of theirs, sir.”
Atlanta whipped into action and away from her anchorage, leaving Athens and its port receding into the morning haze. The busy islands of Greece held every sort of craft needing to be dodged, humanity going about its business under the threat of imminent Olympian meddling. None of those passing within hail had any news of the Lanie Kathcarte.
Corney had been raised to be a modest man, and the hysterical retelling of his encounter with the “angel” grated on him. All he’d done was stand there and talk, after all. Lieutenant Reed had begun to look at him as if he was something out of his books, too.
Corney responded by being ever more vigilant for misconduct, inefficiency, and lack of naval bearing on duty. It solved nothing of the problem, he knew, but it kept the men too busy to create much extra mischief. Still, the lookouts were now scanning the skies for further “angel” sightings, and several reports of objects in the water had caused Lieutenant Reed to be called up on deck, only to find empty ocean.
By that evening, Ottoman Anatolia was just over the portside horizon. Merchantmen were far fewer, seeming to shy away from the Olympian chaos being visited on what had been Trojan lands.
“I caught a pack of ratings on the fantail just before supper,” Chaplain Sears said from his place at the wardroom table. “They had carved a wooden idol, and were about to heave it over the side along with a pouch of tobacco and some silver dollars. Idolatry! On this ship! The captain wouldn’t hear of punishing them, but I confiscated their heathen sacrifice so they couldn’t carry it out.”
Corney sipped terrible Navy coffee and felt himself back at the same tennis match.
“Is that prudent?” asked Lieutenant Carey. “I mean, in light of the fact that we’re still on the ocean, after all. Currying the favor of King Neptune is a long tradition, Mr. Sears.”
“I have to agree with the chaplain on this matter,” said Reed before Sears could work up a line of retaliation against the fist lieutenant. “Absolutely no further sacrifices should be allowed, neither to Poseidon nor local spirits.”
Sears looked a little lost as Reed continued.
“The Nike was quite clear that taking sides, or even appearing to take sides could have dire consequences for us. And by extension, the chances for rescue of the Lanie K‘s crew.”
The other officers looked at Reed as though he’d just sprouted an extra arm. Then, they all looked up at the head of the table to Lieutenant-commander Corney.
Game, set, match.
“I’ll pass that along to the captain, Mister Reed,” Corney said. “And on that note, gentlemen, I encourage those of you not on duty to get as much rest as you can. It’s likely to be a busy day tomorrow.”
“Ship ho! Ship one point off starboard bow, on the horizon!”
On Atlanta‘s open bridge, Whelan and Corney raised spyglasses. Gray seas, gray skies, and between? Masts, carrying no sail, and just a hint of a dark hull peeking over the distant curve of the ocean.
“There’s smoke,” said the captain. “Merchant steamer, I’ll warrant.”
“Headed west, right for us,” added Corney. “Intercept her, sir?”
“Definitely. She’ll have been where we’re going,” said Captain Whelan. “Someone must have seen that accursed ship, and I’ll keep asking until I find someone who has. I’m going below, Mister Corney. Alert me when we’re closing alongside.”
“Yes, sir. Helm starboard, come right one point!”
“Starboard rudder, right one point aye!” came the tinny response through the speaking tube.
A half-hour later, the captain had returned as Atlanta’s engines slowed. “What do you make of her, Mister Corney?”
“French merchant, sir. Navigation Mixte Line. I make her name as the Tonga. She’s holding course, we should be close enough for a hail shortly.”
“She’s not heaving to?”
“Signals were a bit confused on semaphore, sir. I judged this the next best option. I have Mister Engel standing ready in case their master has no English-speakers aboard.”
“Very well. Short of an incident that would make the State Department highly cross, this is acceptable. Carry on, Mister Corney. I’ll leave the shouting to your capable lungs.”
Atlanta drew alongside the black-hulled Tonga, slowly overhauling her. Grasping a mast stay and leaning as far out as he could, Corney brought up his bullhorn.
“Hello, the Tonga!” The waterfall noise of the two ships cutting through the waves together was not quite enough to drown out a strong voice. “This is American cruiser Atlanta!”
The merchant crew had a man with a horn ready as they approached. “‘Allo, Atlanta! We ‘ave no contraband on board!”
“Meaning they’ve got plenty,” Corney muttered aside to the sailors near him, who laughed. “We do not intend to stop you! We are looking for an American side-wheeler, the Lanie Kathcarte, out of Beirut a week ago! Have you seen her?”
There was an immediate reaction from the crew at the name, but a delay before the man with the horn responded.
“Yes, we see her! On the rocks off Cap Apostolos Andreas! They are there!”
“The crew is still alive?” Corney shouted, unsure if he’d heard correctly.
“Yes, they were! They are not alone!” At this, a scuffle seemed to break out on Tonga‘s quarterdeck, the volume of which carried in fragments even without the assistance of a horn.
Corney tried to hail them again, without result. Then, the French merchantmen began to draw away. Atlanta matched her knot for knot for a while, but she had never been a particularly swift steamer.
“I’ll not fire on her, even in bluff,” Captain Whelan said as the prow of his ship swung away from the retreating plume of smoke. “In any case, we have a definite destination now, much more than we had before. We’ll see for ourselves why they didn’t stop and render aid.”
They moved to the lee of the wheelhouse, where the first lieutenant handed Corney a map, and he peered at it closely.
“Here it is, sir,” he said. “Cape Apsotolos Andreas. It’s the very point of the island of Cyprus. The Frenchman said ‘rocks offshore,’ and the charts show a small islet there.”
“How long, Mister Corney?”
Corney hade some rough measurements, using his thumb as a divider. “Based on our last fix, that’s perhaps eighty miles away? We’ll be there by supper.”
The clouds had scattered as the day brightened, then closed in again. The Cypriot coast was still darkness on the horizon when the lookouts spotted the first pod of whales.
Then they’d spotted their second, and third, and half the crew had turned out to watch the spectacle. Dozens of animals, all blowing and swimming away from the ship as it slowly overtook them. More had been spotted converging on their path ahead. Estimates stopped being made once it was clear the number was well north of a hundred. Corney heard mutterings from the sailors lining the rail.
Six bells in the afternoon, and the skies were as dark as a thunderstorm, too.
“Lieutenant-commander, sir,” one of the men addressed Corney, hat in hand, “a word, if you’ve the time?”
“Yes, Goetz, what is it?”
Carpenter’s Mate Goetz spoke slowly, suppressing his German accent. “I spent some time on whalers, sir. Those whales there. Not natural. Every different breed, sir. Cachalots, grays, and fin-whales all podded together. Some prodigious great bulls, too.”
Goetz looked affronted that Corney would consider it. “Of course, sir.”
“Thank you. Keep an eye out, it looks like more are on the way in. Messenger of the watch, please locate Lieutenant Reed.”
The whales did not scatter. They were all around Atlanta now, swimming as close alongside as if they were porpoises. An oily smell passed along the ship with the spray of the whales’ combined breath. It was now impossible to separate mere whitecaps from broaching whales, and still more appeared. Those they passed by did not flee away from the ship, but continued to follow along the same course, the same direction they were all heading.
A whale nudged the hull, causing a mild jolt.
“Mister Corney,” said the captain soberly, “have the watches aloft come down to the main deck, if you please.”
The messenger brought Reed along as the lookouts were abandoning their posts in the tops. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, wide-eyed. “I’ve no record of anything like this.”
“Yet it’s certainly not normal, I’m assured. No yearly migration or any such.”
Another bump, as a large body was forced into contact with the hull.
“Standard right rudder!” Captain Whelan shouted down to the conning tower. “We’ll push our way out.”
“It’s certainly the work of an Olympian, sir.”
The ship began to quiver non-stop. Corney found it difficult to keep his footing at times, reminding him of his one time rounding the Horn. Around the waterline, the seas foamed as whales pressed each other against the ship. Enormous specimens appeared, vast scarred black expanses of skin bulging out of the waves, some a third Atlanta‘s length.
There no longer seemed to be an ocean at all, just a pile of whales lubricated by foam upon which the ship tumbled. The yards creaked alarmingly, but stayed up.
Inevitably, the bodies fouled the thrashing screw. The wake turned scarlet as the great bronze propeller cut through the bodies pressed against it. The whales didn’t back away, offering meat and bone and sinew to the steam-driven blades, falling away as they were gored, and another shoved in to take their place.
Corney grabbed onto the bridge railing as a great gray body went sideways onto the point of the ram. The impact threw the creature head-up, vomiting blood past gaping baleen. The spray over the bow went as red as the wake.
“Quarters!” the captain bellowed. “All hands to quarters!”
The bugler did his best over the obstacles of uncertain footing and rising winds, but it was a certainty that the entire ship knew something was very wrong by this point, whether they were topside or not.
The chugging of the engines grew uneven, and over the noise of all the chaos around them, sounded a high, warbling, metallic squeal, growing in volume.
“Mister Corney! Get the quick-firers manned aft! Drive these wretched beasts off!” The captain moved hand-over-hand along the lifelines around the bridge, herding up the crews for the anti-torpedo boat battery.
Corney staggered along the top of the casemate as the ship pitched.
“Sir,” said Reed, following along behind him, “if the whales are already being cut up by the screw, then what good will shooting them-”
“Then go and advise the captain, Mister Reed! He’ll tell you the same thing I will. ‘Would you have us do nothing?’ We have only certain means at our disposal. If they don’t work, then we’ll try something else.”
The aft quick-firing guns were already manned, or at least their crews had assembled uncertainly around them.
“Clear for action!” Corney ordered.
Canvas shrouds came off the sixty-five caliber Gatling and the three-pounder Hotchkiss revolver cannon. Corney noted with some disapproval that the brass fittings on both guns could use some work, later.
The gunners held on to the weapons and mounts as the rest of the crew slapped home drums and stripper clips. It would have been impossible to hear a fire order, as soon as the Gatling nearest Captain Whelan began popping and spitting, Corney judged that permission enough.
“Aim as close to the water near the fantail as you can!” he directed both crews. “Open fire, continuous!”
The Gatling fired immediately, wreathing the aft part of the casemate in acrid gray smoke as it spat flame and metal. The Hotchkiss took a little longer to get going, despite inventive cursing by the crew. But the gunner finally got the crank turning, and it added fist-sized shells to the ghastly froth of whale stew surrounding the ship.
The metallic squeal turned to an ear-torturing shriek, then fell silent.
The engine went quiet, too.
The rushing crackle of the Gatlings and the sledgehammer crashing of the three-pounders more than made up for the noise. Their reports and the muffled detonations of the Hotchkiss’ shells formed a chorus to back the carnage that now surrounded the ship in all directions.
The whales ignored their dead, whose blasted and mutilated carcasses kept a sickening resemblance of life as they were jostled by the still-living.
It was impossible to aim the machineguns, but also unnecessary; there was no empty ocean in which to waste ammunition.
Runners kept bringing up ammunition despite the tossing deck. The crews mechanically loaded and fired, sweeping a narrow arc of sea nearest the ship’s stern. It was difficult to tell if the bullets were killing their targets, but the shells made grisly sure of it.
“Cease fire!” came the word relayed back from the bridge.
WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM
“-fire,” Corney repeated after the Hotchkiss crew had run through another four-round clip.
The ship wallowed in an oily red slick of meat. There were no whales moving anywhere near the ship any longer. There were spouts in the distance, in small groups breaking apart as they retreated. The ship was no longer moving forward.
Gulls began to circle and dip within seconds of the last shots.
“Good work, men,” Corney said, slumping against a ventilator hood. “Secure your mounts.”
Everyone had time for the shakes, then.
Briefly. Ensign Crawford and one of his black-gang machinists appeared up the ladder near Corney’s position. Crawford appeared to be in some distress. The engineering rating had a double handful of something golden that glittered even under the gray skies.
“Sir,” Crawford began, “they’ve bent the shaft. We’ve… the bearing…”
“Yes, Mister Crawford, I see. Keep moving forward and report to the Captain.”
“What is that, sir?” Reed leaned down to examine some of the golden substance that had leaked from the machinist’s hands as he’d passed.
“That would be grease and filings of Babbitt bronze, Mr. Reed. No doubt from one of the main shaft bearings. It would seem we no longer have steam propulsion.”
“It can’t be repaired?”
“If the main shaft is bent? That’s a shipyard job, Mister Reed,” said Corney. “Let’s see what the captain has to say.”
Crawford and his follower were easy to find, merely by following the captain’s shouting. Captain Whelan was not taking the news well, and his displeasure fell heavily upon Crawford. Corney did not really want to intervene, but felt obligated to do so. Besides the fact that the propulsion casualty was hardly the fault of the engineers, there was an unwholesome taste of class conflict. As recently as his own term through the academy, engineers were excluded from command, treated as staff corps officers, like naval lawyers or doctors. Or chaplains.
“Mister Corney,” said Captain Whelan as they approached, “I see your crews couldn’t protect the screw.”
“No sir,” Corney said.
“And now I’m being told that there’s nothing our black gang can do about it.”
“No, sir. I suspect you’ll want men into the tops, so we can get underway again immediately.”
Whelan shot a glance to the rigging that he’d ordered vacated before the plague of whales. “Ah. Yes,” he said, taken aback. “See to it. I’m going below. You have the watch.”
“Aye, sir,” Corney said to the retreating captain.
“My Lord, sir,” said Crawford, “What happened?” The engineering officer looked around at the blood-slicked decks and the ocean of offal beyond.
“A delay, Mister Crawford. Once the boilers have been secured, kindly have the Chief Engineer send up working parties to assist with the cleanup.”
The engineers withdrew, wide-eyed. The whole ship seemed to be swaying in a daze.
Corey squared his hat and set about reminding them what they were here for. “Mister Jacob! Get your division aloft, if you please! First Lieutenant, get some men sanding down the deck before someone falls and breaks valuable Navy property! Smartly, now!”
Once prodded, sailors ascended the masts, attacked the spatters of dilute whale blood with brushes, and generally threw themselves into any normal-seeming task. Atlanta‘s junior officers responded as well, telling the crew how to do things they already knew.
“Mister Reed,” Corney said aside as the ship recovered, “find Chaplain Sears and make sure there’s no more of this late-night offering business. We won’t reach the island until after dawn now, and I don’t want anyone making any deals.”
“I understand sir. We’re in plenty of trouble as it stands.”
“I’m glad you appreciate the gravity of the situation, Lieutenant. Carry on.”
Reed saluted and left.
The two square-rigged masts Atlanta carried technically made her a brig. The ship was no greyhound under steam, but she was an even more indifferent sailor. As the sails were unfurled, they showed creases bleached permanently by long disuse. The weight of the rig had been designed into the ship to stretch her endurance without coal on distant stations, and was normally treated as a troublesome kind of ballast. The crew’s inexperience at handling her under sail would be as large an impediment to their progress as the weight of guns and armor or the frozen screw now acting as a sea anchor. Corney knew his own lack of sailing time would be a problem, too; he hadn’t been under canvas since Annapolis.
Whichever agency had set the whales against them did not deign to repeat the tactic. Atlanta plodded along the coast of Cyprus, three or four knots at a gust. The crew remained jumpy, and continued reports of objects in the water did not help matters. Corney sympathized; he wondered what was going to come out of the night at them, too. One boiler was kept running to provide steam to the dynamos, so that electric searchlights could be kept paying out onto the dark water.
Lieutenant Reed reappeared on the bridge during the midwatch, bearing coffee.
“Mister Reed, you prove yourself a gentleman as well as a scholar,” said Commander Corney, eagerly accepting the cup.
“We’re not exactly keeping a low profile, are we?”
“Should we be, Mister Reed?” Corney asked, between bitter sips. “Will the Olympians really have any trouble finding us if we turn these lights off and beat some erratic course to our destination? You’re our authority on these matters.”
Reed looked out past the searchlight beams at the invisible horizon. “None of the entities we have records of–documented, oral, or classical—exhibit any kind of flawless omniscience. So, I can only say ‘possibly.'”
“On the strength of that recommendation, Lieutenant, I think the lights stay on.” He looked around at the watchstanders, and spoke quietly. “Any trouble with the crew?”
“Ah, you mean about-”
“Mister Sears gathered the crew after we secured from quarters and we gave them a very persuasive talk on unauthorized ritual.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yes sir,” Reed said, evidently taking Corney’s statement at face value. “I told them that attempting to curry favor with Poseidon or any other sea spirit was tantamount to independently negotiating with a foreign government, and the chaplain said that anyone he caught doing so would be skinned.”
“I’m sure that will do the job, Mister Reed.”
“Sir, I’m uncertain how best to ask this, but…” It was Reed’s turn to be furtive. “Have you seen the captain since this morning?”
“Captain Whelan is resting, Mister Reed.”
“Your expression makes it plain that you do not. We all have our limits, Reed. The captain may have reached his. He’s a good man. Served during the war, a midshipman under Porter’s flag at Vicksburg. He’s seen action aplenty.” Corney drained the last of his cup. “But I think these supernatural events may be more than his mind can bear.”
“I was wondering why you were taking so many of his watches, sir. Privately, we all have been.” Reed looked thoughtful. “It’s not unknown. Since the Re-Emergence there have been pathological cases of rational thinkers rejecting the new reality.”
“And there you have it, then. We will all do our duties tomorrow, Mister Reed. Including the captain. Thank you again for the coffee.”
If no charts had held the location of the Klidhes Islands, it would still have been easy to find in the morning. The angry low clouds remained, yet a single slanted ray of sunlight remained focused on a spot on the farthest island’s shore. Atlanta rounded the Cape of St. Andrew the Apostle, passing St. Andrew’s Monastery, which shared the headlands with a newly-erected Temple of Aphrodite. Before the ship lay the sunlit stage of the island.
“That’s our ship, Mister Corney,” the captain said, peering through his glass. “Or rather what’s left of her.”
Corney pretended not to notice Whelan’s pallor, or the tremor in his hand as he held the spyglass. “Yes, sir. Looks as if she’s burned as well as wrecked.”
The blackened ribs of the ship still stood, and both her massive wheelhouses were still identifiable. Some of her stern had escaped the fire, but most of the rest was unrecognizable. The islands themselves, nearly-barren undistinguished lumps of rock rising from the Mediterranean, offered no shelter. The shrill cries of birds floated over the water, ghostly with distance.
“There’s a lot of movement ashore, sir,” Corney said. “I can’t tell if it’s the crew or not. Everything seems to be centered around something going on at the peak.”
“I’d rather not risk the ship without knowing if there’s anyone alive to risk it for,” said the captain. “We’re all but unable to maneuver, and I suspect those animals just got tired of us more than we drove them off.”
Corney put down his glass. “There’s only one way to determine that, isn’t there? Sir? We have to take a landing party ashore and search the island.”
Whelan did not respond, continuing to stare fixedly at the promontory of the little islet, stubbornly sunlit despite the moving clouds. Corney noticed the little tremor, again.
“Where’s Reed?” Corney asked, unwilling to press the captain more at the moment. “Mister Reed, what do you make of all those figures ahead?”
Reed studied Klidhes through his binocular glasses. “This all seems uncomfortably familiar, somehow,” he murmured. “Do you hear that, sir? That noise?”
“The birds, you mean?”
“I don’t think those are birds, sir. I think they’re sirens.”
Corney put down his glass. “What, you mean like mermaids? ‘Ulysses And The’ Sirens, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, essentially. Sirens are reported frequently in modern times, though not reliably. All I have to fall back on are classical representations, and they’re a bit confused.”
“Please, Mister Reed, quickly.”
“The landing party will need to plug their ears.”
“Thank you. Is the ship in any danger at this distance?”
“Possibly, sir. The more clearly the song can be heard, the greater the threat to the unwary.”
Corney looked ashore as another smattering of the Siren’s keening caught favorable breezes past, worried. “Speed, then. You’ll be going ashore with the landing party, Reed. Lay to the cutter and get ready. Captain, we need to heave to in order to get the boats away.”
“Best we make for anchorage first,” the captain muttered.
“Sir, the survivors,” Corney said. It was not possible to speak confidentially with the captain. “We must put men ashore to rescue the survivors!”
“There are more naked women wrestling in the surf,” said Whelan. “Why can’t they cover themselves?”
“I’d ask Mister Reed, sir, but he’s standing by to go ashore.” Corney felt foolish for having sent him away, yet certainly he’d be needed in case more oddities were encountered. The captain continued to ignore him, so Corney looked at the happenings on the beach for himself.
Women in the surf, as the captain had said, and certainly unashamed of themselves. There were definitely two groups: one coming out of the sea struggling against those on the rocky shore. Those coming from the sea had the green hair of the Nereid they’d seen before. The landward women were wearing… hats and boots? Corney decided on closer observation that they were not. Rather, they had the heads and feet of birds.
Farther up the slope, at the very top of the islet, was the sunlit peak, and upon it, a number of still figures. At the summit was a singular one, another bird-headed siren. Her head was pure white instead of the brown and gray of the others. Her arms were extended to the heavens, and she sang.
As the ship had crept closer, the sound had gotten more pronounced. To Corney, it still sounded like the shrieking of gulls more than a song that would lure men unthinking to their undoing.
Then again, he was doing his best to get closer. Looking around, it seemed the crew had certainly been fascinated.
He glanced over the side. The ship was moving slowly enough that the boats could be launched, if necessary.
“Captain! If the ship were to hold station, I could retrieve the Kathcarte‘s crew, then we could leave this place for good.”
“Terrible things, Corney. Damned things out there.”
Corney took careful note of the twitching of Captain Whelan’s eye. “Yes, sir. And the quicker we accomplish our mission, the sooner we’ll be quit of them.”
“Yes, sir. Rescue, then return.”
The captain’s eyes seemed to clear. “Hurry, Horace. Signal if you need fire.”
“Aye, sir. Mister Carey! Muster the crews for both cutters. Smartly, if you please!”
Atlanta shortened sail and turned towards the breeze. In a few minutes, Corey had his party of volunteers divided among the boats, and revolvers from the armory passed out among the landing party.
Reed looked as enthusiastic as any of them. “I took the liberty of taking some bandages from the surgeon, sir, and wax from the first lieutenant. They should do adequately for earplugs should the need arise, sir.”
“Good work, Mister Reed. Away boats!”
The thirty-five foot cutters jerked and stuttered their way down to the water below their respective davits. And then they were away, men pulling on oars, and the beach growing nearer. Reed handed off supplies to each boat, demonstrating his makeshift ear protection. No one in the landing party seemed to balk at how silly they looked with streamers hanging from their ears. The burnt skeleton of Lanie K decorating the shoals saw to that.
In a few minutes, both cutters ground ashore in the wave-worn rocks. From just around the islet came the sound of fighting and the appalling shrieks of the sirens.
“You four stay by the boats,” Corney said. “Midshipman Lawrence, have your crew gather up the stretchers and follow us to the summit. Everyone else, don’t fire without my order.”
They began to make their way up the island, remaining low by instinct rather than any tactical need. Corney adjusted his pair of holsters and asked Reed, “Can these things be harmed by any of our weapons? I only brought them along to inspire confidence, but if they’re useful, it would be good to know.” He hoped none of the men could overhear them, even though he had to speak louder than he would have liked just to get through the plugs.
“Science is still undecided on the subject, sir.”
“Science has this terrible habit of not being there when we need her. Can you tell me what all this fighting’s about, at least?”
Reed brightened. “Oh, that’s simple, sir. You have a disagreement over the provenance of this island. On one side, the sirens ultimately trace their allegiance back to Aphrodite. On the other, the nymphs belong to Poseidon.”
“And us in the middle,” Corney said. “Simple, is it?”
Reed looked abashed. “I won’t avow as to how the situation might be resolved, sir.”
Corney looked around at the blasted scrub of the island, and up at the unnatural illumination at the peak. “We’ll pick up the Kathcarte‘s crew, that’s how it’s going to be resolved. Form up, Mister Lawrence! No straggling!”
The order had to be repeated a few times, owing to the earplugs.
The screeching and wailing, though muffled, kept getting stronger as they approached. Corney didn’t feel mesmerized so much as irritated. It was a continually distracting racket, more so than the sounds of violence from over the ridge. He’d about written off the supposed attractive affect of the “song” when Reed tugged his sleeve and pointed back downslope in alarm. He was saying something, something that must have been important, but he couldn’t make out quite what. Also, half the landing party was wandering off in the wrong direction.
Midshipman Lawrence was striding confidently along back to the water when they caught up to him.
“Commander,” he said when they’d finally flagged him down. “How’d you get behind me?”
“We’ve been signaling you for minutes, Mister Lawrence. You lost track of us somehow. Did any of you men notice you’d turned back downhill?”
Some shook their heads, dazed. One rating, tired of cupping his plugged ear to try to hear, pulled out his wads of cloth. “It’s this noise, sir, it…” The man’s face went blank, and in an instant, he began sprinting uphill.
“No, Mister Lawrence.” Corney kicked at the gravel, irritated. “He’s going where we’re already headed. We’ll retrieve him with the others. Keep everyone together. Make yourselves fast to each other with cord, if you have to. And keep those plugs in!”
The aghast faces of the men seemed to indicate no further need for warnings. The sailor who’d run off–Corney couldn’t remember his name—had already disappeared from view.
In his place, streaming down the rocks, came a handful of sirens. Corney lost all worry about himself or the men being distracted by their female attributes. They were all gaping beaks, yawning yellow throats, and scrabbling scaly clawed feet. Most of the sirens carried fistloads of rock.
Corney raised his Colt Navy revolver. “Firing line!” he yelled, hopefully enough to raise over the din and the earplugs. “Warn them off, Mister Reed,” he added as an afterthought.
“They aren’t after us, sir,” Reed said, pointing downslope.
A fresh wave of seanymphs had arisen from the beach, dripping with weed and with the same mad grin Corney remembered from the Nereid on the deck. Mercifully, they ignored the beached boats and the bewildered guards there and wafted up the hill. The nymphs didn’t run, exactly, so much as ride a spattering of muddy water emanating from where their feet touched the ground. Corney was reminded oddly of ice-skating.
The two forces converged on the landing party. “Form square!” Corney yelled. His days of infantry drill at Annapolis came back to him, knowledge he’d been almost certain he’d never need. The men formed a half-assed ring, stretchers piled between them as they fumbled with their unfamiliar weapons.
The creatures fell upon each other, entirely ignoring Atlanta‘s crew as they tore and shrieked and grappled. Corney found himself wishing he’d drawn cutlasses and pikes for the men instead.
Two sirens had a nymph by each arm, flailing down the hill in a muddy tumble as they tried to brain their victim. The melee would plainly pile into the square like a ball into ninepins. There was no way Corney could maneuver the entire square out of the way in time, not without scattering them, and certainly not while they were looking every which way (by his own order, no less.) If he fired into the fight, that would break his directive not to become involved, but if he didn’t—
Lieutenant Reed discharged his revolver over hurried aim, catching one of the sirens in the belly. The creature’s wailing cut off into a short gak noise, and it fell and curled spasmodically around the wound before lying still.
The other siren and the nymph fled in opposite directions, and Corney lost track of them in the melee.
“Does this mean we’re for King Neptune now, Mister Reed?”
Reed looked at his Colt as if it were a viper in his hand. “I hope not, sir,” he said.
Corney spared a final glance at the gutshot siren. One could almost ignore the grotesquerie of its avian features in the repose of death; the broken woman’s body was awful to behold. “Get them moving, Mister Lawrence. The brawl seems to be spilling downhill from us.”
Their way upward was unblocked, except for one slightly bedraggled-looking seanymph. Her voice was muffled, though still sweet.
“Like flower petals
Falling, A goddess’
“Go away,” Corney said. When the nymph just swayed there empty-eyed, he gestured with his revolver. “Go on! We’re no part of any of this.”
The nymph, her expression unreadable, drifted away.
“That probably wasn’t politic, was it Mister Reed?”
Before them, only the sunlit knob of Klidhes, and the single white figure in the beam of light.
“Sweet mercy, sir!” said Midshipman Lawrence. “There they are! We almost walked right by without seeing them!”
Corney looked for what hallucination had distracted Lawrence this time, and saw nothing but rock and scrub and the blown wrack that littered the slope.
And then one of the piles of debris moved a little.
Lanie Kathcarte‘s crew lay all around them, stretched out on their bellies, all pointed towards the summit. They reached vainly upwards, trying to grasp the object of their desire.
Corney knelt by the nearest figure, which croaked and shuddered when Corney blocked his view.
“Too exhausted to move,” Corney said. “A week without food or water, it’s a miracle any are alive at all. Get them on the stretchers! Hurry!”
The survivors fought, or would have if they’d had any strength. Their sunburned hands grasped futilely towards the sunlit peak; their cracked lips tried to form pleas towards the distant white figure.
The landing party bound them up with indecent haste. After a brief search, Corney satisfied himself that they’d accounted for all of Lanie K‘s compliment such as remained.
By the time they’d finished, they were surrounded again. The Sirens had made enough headway against the Nereids to have numbers to spare watching the Atlantas. Bird-headed figures gaped and strutted almost exactly a stone’s throw around them.
Corney looked back as the men began to close ranks around the survivors.
“Who is that, Mister Reed?” He pointed at the peak. “Who is that creature that’s caused all this?”
Reed still looked dazed. “I couldn’t possibly say, sir. I don’t believe we wish to go interview her.”
“This is your field, Lieutenant. Have you no stomach for learning these things, at long last?”
A spark of awareness returned to Reed’s drawn expression. “I think, sir, that Captain Whelan is turning the main battery on the island, and I think we’ve accomplished our task here.”
Corney looked with alarm out across the waters of the cape. It was difficult to tell, but the heavy rifles of Atlanta‘s big guns might indeed have been foreshortened as if training towards them…
“If I were to guess, Commander,” Reed continued, “she is Leukothea, the white goddess. Apparently, she’s some elder form of Siren. I’ll put my estimate in my report, sir. Should we survive.”
“Belay that talk, Reed! If there were only some way to put all this to rights, then other mariners might not suffer the same fate.”
“Sir, I think you’re beginning to succumb to the effects of the song,” Reed said, taking up position near the end of the landing party’s ragged square. “I’d hate to have to carry you aboard, too.”
Mild, bookish Reed sounded deadly serious. Corney considered the young man, and the distant corpse of the creature he’d shot at close range. A man who slays monsters, he thought. “Lieutenant Reed, take charge of the men. Wait here. I’m going to fix this problem and rejoin you presently.”
“Commander, I must again urge you to-”
“That will be all, Mister Reed.”
Reed saluted. The stretcher-borne victims grasped powerless as they lay where the men had put them back down.
Corney turned and faced the peak, where the white-headed Siren still appealed to the skies. The madness of this galled him. His duty was to the safety of his men, and to the aid of his countrymen first and foremost. Perhaps he was bewitched by the song. Perhaps it was all hubris. Corney trudged upward, unchallenged by the Sirens.
The white Siren, seated cross-legged on the rocks, didn’t pay any attention to him as he approached. If she maintained a reserve of her fighting bird-women beyond those surrounding the landing party, she didn’t keep them close by. Corney’s professional mind didn’t care for the sloppiness of her tactics.
Up close, she was clearly a different breed than her minions. Corney could see her milk-pale skin was clear and without so much as a sunspot; the plumage on her head was brilliant white and as complex as a bird-of-Paradise. Her eyes were liquid golddust, and despite the inhuman-ness of her features, they conveyed a longing or sadness that was crushing to behold, even without considering her muffled song. Unlike every other creature fighting beneath them, she was clothed, though only in a twist of gauzy green fabric about her waist.
He tried not to notice how much her bosom was shaped like his wife’s.
“Your Excellecy,” Corney said, unsure where to begin, “on behalf of United States Ship Atlanta and the Navy Department, I must ask you to desist at once.”
The white Siren noticed him then. The song ceased, and she looked at him straightalong, fierce golden falcon’s eyes boring into his own. The long, pointed beak never closed. She panted, like a bird.
“O FAITHLESS OLYMPIANS,” she said, in a sing-song voice as clear and beautiful as wedding bells, “WHERE IS MY BIRTHRIGHT NOW? WHEREFORE THE PROMISES O’ER MY DAUGHTERS AND THEIR NESTS? WHERE IS MY LADY’S ASSISTANCE?”
“That’s none of my affair, Madam.” It wasn’t so different than dealing with any other foreigner, Corney guessed. “I’m concerned with the freedom of these men and the navigation of these waters.”
“FREEDOM,” the Siren cried. “WHAT WE ARE GRANTED IS CONQUEST AND BETRAYAL.”
Corney looked down upon the entire island. It was a miserable barren speck, even if you were the most important thing on it. A fresh wave of seanymphs darkened the surf, numbers far greater than those already ashore. The Siren’s rough perimeter began to shrink. “Yes, ma’am. Whatever happens, we’re taking back our men.”
She was on her clawed feet in an instant, gaping like her lesser daughters below in a fight reflex. Corney could see very plainly down her yellow throat.
“MY WORSHIPERS, LOST!” Leukothea stared at the landing party.
“Rescued, Ma’am. Not lost any more. Those poor devils are going home.”
“WHAT CREATURE DARES? WE ARE OLDER THAN GODS!”
Corney put away his revolver again, but drew from his other holster. “And we are younger,” he said. “And we are mortal, and we have learned better than you when a cause is lost.” Don’t make me shoot that beautiful breast, Corney thought.
The white Siren advanced on him slowly, fists balled. “IT IS MINE! SHE HAS EVERYTHING ELSE! THIS IS MINE!”
“And these are ours,” Corney said. “And they’ll go back to the world of mankind.”
The distance plus their plugged ears meant he couldn’t shout orders to Reed or anyone else from the summit.
“THIEVES! OLYMPIAN THIEVES!”
The creature made as if to advance on him. Corney raised the Very pistol to the sky and fired.
The red glare of the descending star shell seemed as supernatural as anything they’d encountered on the voyage here. Corney noticed every beaked head in view looking up at it. He did the only sensible thing left to do, and ran.
Thunder accompanied his scramble down the rocks, but thunder with a ripping, rumbling noise following it. He waved to the landing party, but they needed no encouragement. Stretchers hoisted, they fled ahead of him downslope as fast as they could go.
Fifteen hundred yards was a negligible distance to a six- or eight-inch breechloading rifle, but Corney knew well what the limits of accuracy were from a rolling platform. The shells started to burst everywhere on the summit behind him.
He didn’t look back to see if the white Siren had been hit. There was only Pandemonium around him. He waved the empty flare gun, keeping the men moving. Again, he wished he’d brought his hanger.
On his last glance, Corney couldn’t quite decide if he’d seen a vast face in the clouds turning away from Leukothea’s beautiful despair. Help wasn’t coming, it seemed, nor mercy. Fresh waves of sea nymphs were dragging ashore as they cast off, and the Sirens were scattered by ragged shell bursts ever closer around their queen.
Corney hoped the captain’s revulsion for the creatures would exhaust itself before they were aboard. The rowing was awkward with the stretchers athwart the boats, but it was the only way to pack them all in.
After what seemed an eternity on the water, rowing towards Atlanta and her heavy guns firing over their heads, lines were made fast onto the lifting eyes and they were hauled aboard.
Orders went out to make sail and turn downwind even before the boats swung back over onto the deck. There was some poorly-repressed cheering as the survivors were carried down to the surgeon’s bay, much of it directed at Corney and Reed.
“Well done, Atlanta. All it needed was a hero or two.” The female voice from above stilled all the celebration at an instant.
A frantic search (and not a few wildly-pointed revolvers) revealed a familiar figure standing on the lip of the dormant forward smoke funnel. The Nike stood with her arms crossed and wings furled, as if she’d been part of the ship all along.
“Aphrodite did not care to help keep the island, it seems,” said Atlanta‘s Nike. “An object lesson in over-dependence. Farewell!” She slotted her helmet down over her face and leapt, wings outspread. All eyes on deck followed her path into the low clouds.
“Good riddance,” said the Captain. “I’m glad you’re back, Mister Corney. One of the lookouts reported hearing a gunshot, before you signaled.”
“That will be in Lieutenant Reed’s report, sir. Though, after he fired in defense of the landing part-”
“Reed fired, you say?”
“Just so, sir. After he shot one of the Sirens, no immediate retribution was forthcoming, though they had ample opportunity.”
“So have we made an enemy of King Neptune or Aphrodite or someone? There will be a board of inquiry by the Navy Department.”
“Oddly sir, I have no particular fear of admirals right at this moment.”
Whelan smiled for the first time in days. “Well said, Horace. Get us underway.”
Copyright 2011 S. Hutson Blount
S. Hutson Blount has worked with nuclear propulsion systems, robotic laser welders, and mutant cats, but as yet has no experience with mythological figures. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with a wife who tolerates his foolishness to an alarming degree.