Way back in the 1980's the American burger chain A&W introduced a new one third of a pound burger. It was the same price as their quarter pounder. It didn't sell. Since then McDonald's have tried the same concept three times. They never sold. You see, most of their customer base thought a third was smaller than a quarter. Now I think they missed a trick there. If your customer base is that stupid, you should introduce the fifth or sixth of a pounder to your menu. They'll fly off the shelves, especially if you only charge the same price as the quarter pounder. Then the entire retail sector could have followed that up with two for the price of three. I guarantee that would work as well. I know this, because there was a friend of mine who tried it for a trial period in his small store. Even when he told customers at the check out that they were being conned, most of the customers still insisted he had to sell them two for the price of three. They knew their rights. After many a heated argument he had to concede that the customer was always right and take their money. The offer didn't last a full day, because his conscience wouldn't allow him to take advantage of all those morons. They knew best. This amuses me greatly.
(The copyright to this image is the property of Imgur.)
The Never. A place he hadn't ever been to. The place where he belonged? Jake had to accept that. He didn't want to deny it. The world around him, as far as his eyes could see, was all ocean. It should be blue-green like all the others. It was in a way. Only here that palette had a hundred more colors. Everything did, including the ship and the people around him. That colorful, possibly formal, costume Daisy wore, was brighter and far more beautiful. He could have lost himself in staring at a plank on the deck. It made everything seem new to him. As though he were viewing these things for the first time. Dragging his eyes from the deck he rotated slowly. Where was the sun? There was light. Looking down at the deck again he noticed his shadow for the first time. Faint and diffuse, and fascinatingly all around him. Craning his neck back to where that indicated the illumination came from, he saw nothing, but clouds and blue sky.
Jake sensed that Hermes was rebooting himself. The AI would be recovering from the journey for some time. Meaning he couldn't quietly ask him about these anomalies. Even the sounds were better. The monotone, mono sound world he came from was monotonously dull compared to The Never. Could this actually be heaven? A memory from a previous existence stirred. That was one of the many theories. A very popular one with the myriad of different cultures who'd found themselves here, either by accident or design. There were a billion different ways you could find yourself here. A trillion different paths. Oh my God. Doxy was skipping. She moved up alongside Pengelly standing at the railings. Put her arm around his waist then rested her head on his shoulder. A long squeeze and she pranced off. Daisy approached.
"Well Wanderer, what do you think?" She breathed happily. A lovers sigh for her home.
"I think I could very easily get used to this. The Captain is enjoying her return. It looks like she's about to break into her happy dance."
"Look around you Wanderer."
"Please call me Jake. I don't feel entirely comfortable assuming that mantle." Jake responded. "Maybe when the Captain accepts me." Daisy was right though. Everyone had a spring in their step and a smile on their face. Happy to be back. He turned back to her. "Everybody's overjoyed it seems. Apart from you."
"Inside I want to run around like an overexcited puppy. Fifteen hundred years and a hundred crossings have taught me to restrain myself. Besides, I have to maintain a sense of decorum. I'm representing my people here. The First Come. We were not the first though. Not by a long way. Only the first humans from the prime node."
"You sure look good for your age... Can I still call you Daisy? It seems over familiar."
"Daraja Daluchi is my given name. Part of it at least. When I return my people will sing my full name. It takes a while. Daisy will do Jake."
Something tickled his mind. It might have been his translator.
"One who is valuable to everyone, praise God?"
"Close enough." She replied staring out into the distance. A happy, dreamy expression on her face.
Jake took a long deep breath. This just kept getting better and better. The smells so intense and multifaceted.
"Land ahoy Captain." One of the lookouts cried from his place at the periscope. "Harrowmist dead ahead."
"We've been here an hour already? Doesn't feel like it to me. Must be the no sun thing."
"Almost. You were standing and staring a lot longer than you think. That happens to most of those who see The Never for the first time. They become lost in its vibrancy."
"That's a good word for it. I still don't feel right calling you Daisy. It feels disrespectful."
"I'd prefer it if you did. I get more than enough respect in my homeland. You'll become far more comfortable with it once we get to know one another better I'm sure."
"I'll take your word for it Daisy."
He spotted Doxy headed aft a grin on her face. Assumed she was heading for him, only for her to brush past. Making for the lookouts position on a low platform at the foot of the mainmast. There she took over a periscope. He and Daisy headed over. Jake hoped he could get a look to. Pip was there already. Hopping excitedly from one foot to the other. He gave her a smile.
"Bet you're glad you came along now eh Jake." Her delighted expression froze on her face. "Something's wrong."
Doxy was hunched at the periscope. The tension in her body plain to see. She straightened urging the lookout to return to his position."
"Their shields are up." She declared. "All hands to battle stations. Tell the gunnery officer to reload all guns with solid shot. Have explosive and armor piercing on standby. Don't know what we're up against yet. Looks like we might have a fight on our hands."
As she jumped down and brushed past him Jake saw the look on her face. Dear lord she was looking forward to it. Doxy was actually excited by the possibility of a fight.
"What do I do?" He asked no one in particular.
"Best stay out of the way." Pip advised. "If anyone needs you they'll let you know."
With that she was gone. More shouts and orders. More sails rippled down from their stays. The Scarlet Harlot was heading into battle. He could die here. Jake giggled nervously. That was new. He might get someone killed though. Should he get below? He looked at Daisy for some guidance, only to see her grinning like a lunatic as she pulled her sleeves up. These people were insane. If he went below decks and they were sunk he'd be fucked. More so given Hermes was offline. All the crew knew exactly what to do. Staying out of their way his priority, as they ran about the deck. Because daisy hadn't made he move he stuck to her. It didn't look as though this was her first time.
"City's taking fire Captain." One of the lookouts bellowed.
"Where from." She called back.
"Can't see a vessel. There's a fog bank, ten degree's to port of Harrowmist. It's getting thicker by the second."
"Keep an eye out. Let me know the instant you see anything. I don't care what it is. Helmsman ten degrees to port."
Their leader whizzed past him.
"What the hell's going on?" Hermes cried. "I leave you alone for five minutes and we're in the shit up to our necks."
"Oh thank God you're here." Jake muttered, his relief. "What does port mean again?"
"Assuming you don't mean the alcoholic beverage it's left. How many times have I had to tell you that?"
"It's not my fault it keeps changing." He whined.
"No it doesn't you twat. Port is always the left side of the ship facing forward and the right side facing back. It's less confusing."
"No it isn't. Left is always left and right is always right. That's how I was brought up. Why are you being so horrible to me?"
"Because I'm working at reduced levels of efficiency due to the trip and you're doing that helpless kitten thing you did before you spent all night humping Morag."
Jake sighed from his boots upwards.
"I just need something to do." Daisy was looking at him, he did an apologetic grimace. "It might surprise you to learn this is my first naval engagement. I was expecting a bit more warning. A few goes on a simulation. So I'd know what to expect."
"You can expect a kick up the ass if you don't pull yourself together. Let me explain. I've got no access to hundreds of my subroutines. Ones that could turn out to be vital in an emergency. That's when they kick in you prick. You've got them as well. Plus you've got me."
"Alright I'm getting a grip. Doesn't help that everybody else is ecstatic. It's like they're all going to a party I haven't been invited to. I'm the unwelcome gatecrasher."
"That's just nervous excitement, blood lust and the chance of a fuck ton of booty. They're pirates, not frigging accountants."
"Shit. I've left all my weapons down in the cabin."
"Well run and get them then. Jesus, you'll have me blowing your nose and wiping your ass next."
Once he was in motion things slowed down paradoxically. Having somewhere to go and something to do took his mind off the impending conflict. He dodged his way between the crew members. All of whom looked a lot happier than him. Down to his cabin. Releasing the airlock before gathering up his kit in a hurry. He slipped it on. Then patted himself down.
"Is there anything else?" He was wasting time. Jake knew he'd forgotten something. Something he couldn't see in his cramped quarters.
"Weapons?" Hermes prompted.
"Ummmm. I've got them."
"I know. You're also in a place where the laws of physics aren't the same. What might that mean?"
For a moment he was completely stumped.
"Crap. Firearms might not work."
"Precisely. Switch them all to gunpowder and remember that means...?" The question lingered there.
"I haven't got a near inexhaustible supply of ammunition. The pistols are single shot and I'll only have 12 rounds in the Winchester."
"It's not called a Winchester here, but otherwise that's correct. Now sort your shit out and let's get top side. I imagine we'll be within range very shortly. If we aren't already. Now move it."
Jake hurried back setting his weapons as he went. He could hear muffled noises coming from the gun deck as he came out on deck he saw why. As well as the guns below there were now twelve more on deck. Not including the half dozen swing guns that were now manned. Damn. They were short on crew and he was doing bugger all.
"Armored Galleon dead ahead Captain. Seventy guns at least."
Jake joined up with Daisy again. She gave him a searching look. He patted his weapons and nodded. Panic over. They were up against a ship that was at least three times their size and had over twice as much fire power. It was highly likely they were out ranged as well. Meaning they'd be under fire well before they could retaliate. Holy shit this was going to happen. He stared at the concealing fog. They'd got there quicker than he'd imagined. Which could only mean that bank of haze had moved as well. A dark shape emerged. It look enormous in comparison to them. Jake saw the the smoke bloom along its sides.
"Brace!" Doxy screamed at the top of her lungs "Evasive maneuvers Fetu. Get us in closer. Let's nip this bulls heels. Let it know how sharp our teeth are."
It was impossible to tell which was first. The noise of the guns or the shot that tore through wood and sail. There was a sharp female cry from behind him. He spun to see Morag lying next to a winch. A three foot splinter through her belly it was also pinning her left arm which it had passed through. Before he knew it he was kneeling beside her. The blood which had barely begun to flow started coming fast. The wounded engineer was already tearing at a medipack with her one free arm.
"I'll live.. I think." She gasped. "If I don't you must avenge me my love."
She was grinning. He tore the pack open for her. Helping to apply the contents. The flow of blood stopped. She looked pale. That was saying something for a redhead.
"Cut your palm." Hermes ordered urgently. "I can spare a million biots to help her out." Without even thinking Jake complied. Holding his bleeding hand over the wound. "So long fella's it was nice knowing you."
Morag looked at him. Curiosity and wonder. She'd work out exactly what was happening here.
"She's gonna get off another salvo before we're in range. Make ready lads and lasses."
The noise of battle faded from his hearing. The world darkened around Jake. The anger surged. This wasn't fair. They were outgunned and out matched. That was bullying in anyone's language. With a quick squeeze of Morag's hand he stood up. Returning to Daisy's side. Now he could see the other ship more clearly. They were about to open up again on their powerless victim. No one else was going to be hurt here. These were his comrades, one day he might be lucky enough to be considered their friend. Jake stepped confidently in front of Daisy to protect her from the oncoming storm.
"Step aside you fool." That ominous booming voice brooked no refusal and the strength of the shove she gave him sent him staggering away.
Fuck me, her eyes were glowing white hot. Jake flinched as she brought her hands together in an arms length clap. A thunderclap that tore a fifteen meter wide hole in the side of the galleon. It's thick armor punched through like it wasn't even there. More than a third of it's side was an open wound with cannons scattered like straws. There were a lot of bodies in there to. That was good. The mother fuckers deserved it. Credit to them though. The survivors were already shooting at them. Their rounds plinking harmlessly against the Harlot's hull.
"FIRE!" Doxy screamed at the top of her lungs. Their salvo tore into the innards of the stricken ship. Sending bodies cartwheeling into it's deepest bowels. "Bring her in helmsman. Time to get up close and personal. Boarding party to me."
"Remind me never to get you angry." Jake quipped to Daisy who was breathing heavily from her humongous effort.
"Go. You know what to do Wanderer."
He'd let her off for that slip. On the grounds that she could leather seven colors of shit out of him. Instead he saluted her then joined his Captain at the rail. She was already easing her dual swords and pistols in their sheathes and holsters.
"You coming along for the ride, Sparky?"
"If I may." He replied tightly.
"You most certainly may." She looked at the assembled crew. All ten of them. "We might need a hand."
"How many do you think?"
She knew exactly what he meant.
"At least five or six to one. That only means there's more to go around. I'd back my lot against them if it were twice that. You nervous?"
"Shitting my pants, but my anger's got it firmly under control."
While they'd been chatting the Harlot had been crabbing in towards that wound in the other ships side.
"Steady crew. At my command. Lets show these bastards what a real fight is."
The tension was coiling his muscles into steel springs.
"Red Mist protocol?" Hermes asked.
"Red Mist, thank you Hermes."
They grated into contact, the whole ship shuddering. Before grinding to a halt. almost inside the attacker. Hands poised over her weapons, Doxy drew a deep breath. Before the first syllable of her order had finished Jake had launched himself into their prey. He couldn't see Doxy's expression, one of approval. The fox was already beside some unpleasantly surprised chickens. That shocked pause was all he needed. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Dropping each of his pistols as he fired it and drew the next. A battle ax swung through the space he'd occupying. Jake already on one knee his saber drawn and taking out both the axeman's legs below the knees. Straightening to drive his blade through the chest of the next. His boot kicking the body off. There was time. He picked up the pistols. As the rest of the boarding party joined him. Doxy the first.
"Leave some for us you greedy bastard." She chided.
"There's plenty to go around. Officer rallying some men down there." He pointed his left arm down the length of the ship. "They'll be coming at us in numbers."
"Well spotted." Doxy complimented.
"It's what I'd do. To prevent us gaining a foothold." He reloaded his pistols as he spoke. Double quick time, not even having to look at them.
"You heard him my friends."
The party spread out using what cover they could.
"Turbo Hermes please." He murmured.
"Are you sure? Red Mist and Turbo? At the same time?"
"Yeah I need to work up a sweat."
"You're the boss."
They'd been there less than a minute. The sounds of the counter force growing in volume as their numbers increased. Doxy huffed.
"Sod this. I'm tired of waiting to be asked for a dance."
With that she started running towards the assembling group her swords whirling and whistling through the air. At least four had gone down before the panic set in and the others started to draw back. Their retreat becoming faster as the rest of the crew joined Doxy.
"See Hermes. I told you. I need to work up a sweat."
"I make that six all." Doxy declared cleaning her blades on a fresh corpse.
"You are so competitive." He chided.
They made their last stand in their captains cabin at the stern. It gave them the most protection. Because they assumed there was only one way in. Until Doxy, Jake and two others came in through the windows. There were plenty more crew, but they surrender when they realized they were now leaderless. The killing frenzy having left him he slumped himself against the mast. The others giving him approving looks. He'd proved his metal.
"Not bad for a novice." Doxy admitted grudgingly, before breaking into that grin.
"I just killed fifteen people. And the worst part is I enjoyed it."
"Shit." She sank down into a cross legged position. "I got fifteen as well. Don't worry about it. We'll return them to their owners and they'll be up and about in no time."
"Is that true?" He asked hopefully.
"I've got no idea. Depends where they came from and I've never seen their colors before. I thought they were from Nova Hispania. We'll gut this vessel and tow her into Harrowmist. They might know who they are. I doubt there are any papers on board that will give us a clue as to their origin. They're professionals that's for sure. Probably mercenaries flying a flag of convenience. I do love a puzzle though. And best of all.."
"You've made an entrance?"
"That's right Sparky." She patted him on the shoulder and stood. "Right lets see what we've got lads and lasses. Apart from a prize vessel Harrowmist will pay handsomely for. Now we're only screwed three ways. I think we've found ourselves a lucky mascot. Let's get busy. First off I want to find out how the hell they made this fog bank."