Commander Ardlee’s shouting orders about getting back to the pumps penetrated the black. A storm tossed the ship like an empty bottle in a child’s tub. Captain Reinvo wondered how long he’d been unconscious because he was no longer outside.
Sitting up, the world shook and swayed more than it should have, and every part of his body clamored for the best pain of show blue ribbon prize. His feet tangled in a rope, and he tried to catch himself on the edge of the bunk before he fell.
Except it wasn’t a bunk, it was a hammock strung up in the mess hall. He regained enough sense to hold still and then carefully worked his feet free of the tangled ropes.
The room felt wrong to his muddled mind. Hammocks holding crewmen wrapped in bandages and splints filled the mess hall. It took a bit more thought before he realized all the hammocks hung at an angle of nearly ten degrees to starboard. The air was filled with a disgusting mix of soup, ocean, and blood. The warm smell of blood tangled in his mind, but it also fired his determination. The ship was in trouble, and he needed to be at command. With the room figured out, he turned to his own body.
Bloody cloth bandages wrapped his hands. A set of tender lumps on his head thrummed like the beating of a great drum.
Father Baenali maneuvered through the maze of wounded men to his side.
“Captain, you shouldn’t be up.” His weathered face pinched with concern, and he pulled the sleeve of his robe back so he could feel Reinvo’s head for a fever with his freshly washed hands.
Reinvo pushed the priest’s hand away. “When the ship’s safe, I’ll be safe, too. What’s happened?”
“You’ve been unconscious for almost a full day. We’ve made it to the open waters. But, we struck reef. Lower compartments are flooded. Commander Ardlee is rallying the crew to the pumps, keeping us afloat.”
Reinvo pulled himself up and slid out of the hammock. His legs crumpled under him. Father Baenali quickly supported him so he didn’t fall.
“Just need to find my legs.”
Father Baenali frowned at him for a moment before sighing. Keeping his mouth tight, Reinvo forced his legs to support him and reached for the next hammock to take a step.
They moved together through the room. His legs screamed in pain as imaginary fire ants ran up and down his legs, biting regularly. Reinvo ignored the sensations and concentrated on staying balanced as he walked. Each step became steadier, and the ants faded into deep muscle and bone pains. He knew his legs were likely bruised and battered, but he steeled himself to ignore the pain. The body would heal so long as he didn’t push it too far, and a bit of motion would just hurt.
“I got it from here, Father. Go take care of the injured.”
“Are you sure you can walk?” The priest’s dark brown eyes weren’t the friendliest eyes on the ship. Still, they held concern at the moment.
“It’s just like taking watch the morning after a long night at the pub.”
Father Baenali didn’t look convinced, but he knew Reinvo wouldn’t back down. With one last light press of his hand on Reinvo’s shoulder, he nodded. “May the Star Empresses bless you and keep you from hurting yourself further,” he said in his sing-song praying voice.
“They have more important business than to look in on me,” Reinvo grunted. But looking down at his blood stained uniform, he gave the priest a crooked smile. “But, I’d appreciate the support nonetheless.”
The priest chuckled as he went back to his ministrations. Reinvo waited to be sure the priest wasn’t watching before he made his shaky way out into the hall. Clinching his jaw and keeping his shoulders tight helped hold the pain at bay.
The ship rolled suddenly making him hit the wall. The pain that caused forced out a cry, and he wasn’t particularly proud of the curses that followed under his breath afterward. He glanced down the hall in both directions, glad that no crewmen were in sight.
The narrow stairs presented a challenge. He stared at them before deciding to tackle them like a cliff climb. Maintaining three points of contact, he made sure to look at the railing his hand would grab next or the step the foot would move to before deliberately moving up. Each step introduced new pains that he worked out how to avoid or ignore. The ship’s rocking didn’t help, and he let out a few more curses before he’d made it up to the top deck.
The storm had lessoned, but it still howled, muffling most of the crew’s shouted exchanges. As Reinvo stepped out, the cold rain-filled winds hit him. He grabbed his coat and pulled it shut as water soaked his clothes completely.
Nine crewmen wrapped tight in heavy weather gear were working three steam pumps quickly strapped down to the main deck. Steam piping had been bent into place and connected to the machines with a patchwork of gear. Once they got through this, whatever had been so savagely scavenged would need repairs. The pump wheels spun so fast they blurred. Cargo crane chains secured the hoses to the rails, and water shot out hundreds of feet before arcing down to the choppy ocean waves. The storm had lessened letting enough light through to see the dark blue of deep waters.
The ocean was chaotic but not more than a ship like the Vibrius could handle. His feet felt Vibrius’s hearts beating. As long as the engines ran, the ship could deal with this storm. Reinvo grabbed a safety harness from a storage locker and secured it in place. The ship was still listing ten degrees to starboard. So he moved over to the starboard railing and clipped in the safety line to lean out over the edge and look at the hull. When the ship rose out of the waves, a jagged set of scars marred the steel plating just below the waterline. For a brief moment, he saw that one scar had continued deeper and turned into a rip. At least two sections below the waterline would be flooded.
Setting out, he gritted his teeth and ignored the pain. He needed to be on the bridge. Everyone was so busy with their tasks, no one noticed Reinvo as he worked his way across the deck to the bridge. The winds and rain helped clear his head.
The bridge was a mess, water puddled and rolled around the floor, the window he’d gone through had been plugged with lumber from a cargo pallet that stopped most of the rain from coming in, the ship’s compass had been smashed and the pedestal it was mounted on leaned sideways like a drunken sailor. A set of brownish lines that looked too much like dried blood not to be ran down the side of the compass pedestal. Only half the bridge crew stood at their stations. Commander Ardlee had the pallor of a lost soul in his soaked-through heavy gear, dripping more water on the floor as he shouted orders about recovering another hand pump into the communication tubes.
“Captain on deck!” Lieutenant Metallo cried, his voice pitched excitedly like a castaway spying land.
Silence took the bridge. Even the storm paused as if realizing the tides were turning.
“Captain,” Commander Ardlee said, breaking the silence, his voice quivering slightly.
“Aye, I’m glad to be here, too,” Reinvo said, patting Ardlee on the shoulder. “Status?”
The storm’s winds howled outside driving the rain into the bridge as the ship rocked and bounced, striking another wave.
“We’re taking on water, and we don’t have the pumps needed to keep up. We’re cut off from the machine shop and both engine rooms. We’ve lost the rudder and probably one screw drive. Storm’s lessened but not by much. Six men are confirmed dead, two went overboard, and the other four were crushed or took head wounds.” The commander’s eyes glanced at the compass pedestal confirming it was indeed dried blood on it. “Sixteen are wounded beyond the ability to work. Ten crew below deck are either trapped or lost. That leaves sixteen able bodies, including Father Baenali who’s taken over for the surgeon.”
Reinvo put his hand flat against the steel wall of the bridge and felt the vibrations of the ship’s engines. “Engineering must still be alive. The engines are running.”
Ardlee nodded agreement. “Aye, but we can’t reach them. If it weren’t for the steam lines, we wouldn’t be able to run the water pumps. That’s all we have to keep us afloat.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that. Is the hull breached anywhere else other than section three starboard?”
Ardlee’s eyebrow shot up at Reinvo’s prior knowledge of the situation making Reinvo feel cheerful for a moment. He clapped Ardlee’s back. “It’s my ship, man.”
Ardlee nodded. “Starboard hull’s ripped between sections three and six. We aren’t sure, but it likely spans decks two and three.”
Reinvo’s stomach clenched. The breach was just below the waterline.
Ardlee didn’t stop there. “We also have hull cracks leaking in section one port side at the bilge. He took a lot of stress in the face of this storm. The chemical torches are in the machine shop. We have no way to patch the hull.”
“Drastic times,” Reinvo muttered. “Commander, get me as many men as you can spare from the pumps to cargo hold two.”
Ardlee frowned. “Aye, but what are you going to do?”
“It’s a balancing act. Steady on. We’ll make it out of this.”
He left the bridge before Ardlee could read him better. He knew if he didn’t find a solution fast, the ship wasn’t going to last.
He fought his way to the cargo hold. The storm was now just an annoyance compared to worries for the remaining souls under his command. Before he went down the ladders, he decided to keep the safety harness locking it to the rails as he moved. Reaching his destination, he paused to collect himself. Taking a deep breath, he stood straight and stepped into the cargo hold. Seven men greeted him with dread in their eyes and hopelessness in their voices.
“We’re not lost,” he said straight away. “And if you move your butts, we’ll be raising a glass to our return at the White Gull inside a week.”
The men nodded, and their eyes focused on him. They took in his bloody uniform and slowly straightened up themselves.
“I want every piece of cargo in here stacked as far to port as possible and secured. Then we’ll do the same in hold one and three.”
The men saluted with less than half-hearted aye-ayes. Reinvo ignored the lack of enthusiasm and picked two men at random, ordering them to follow him. He led them down one more deck, making sure he was in front so they couldn’t see his pained expressions. He did his best to hide his injuries and move smoothly. One of the emergency pumps was being used to remove the water from the compartment where the hull was cracked. It was a storage area holding mostly ropes, pullies, and sails.
“Clear this compartment of everything. Put it up in hold two on the port side with everything else.”
The men set to work, but he needed speed. “With haste, gentlemen,” he yelled. Ignoring his own pain, he grabbed a handful of gear and carried it up the ladder himself. Tossing the gear to one of the crewmen, he bent down to encourage Kilthin coming up the ladder behind him. Pain shot through his torso like a white hot explosion. He chomped his mouth closed on the scream that wanted to get out.
Below crewman Kilthin, the most senior sailor of the team, went white, his eyes going wide. “Yes, sir!” he said with the first sign of enthusiasm and scrambled up the ladder like he was escaping a fire. “Make a chain!” Kilthin shouted, and suddenly, all the crew were moving as they should.
Reinvo chuckled to himself at what Kilthin must have thought Reinvo was about to say. The pain eased, and he purposefully took responsibility for helping tie the cargo down as that had the least bending and lifting. It was sweaty work, but it got done.
The lower compartment was empty except for the pump. “Shut the pump down, seal off the steam pipes, and take it and the extra piping up to the main deck. I’m sure commander Ardlee will have a use for it.”
“Captain, that’ll flood the compartment!?”
“Yes, it will. Now do it.”
The men quickly removed the pump. Reinvo sealed the water-door on the compartment personally.
After they’d done the same for the other two cargo compartments, Reinvo was pleased to feel the ship had taken on about a five-degree list to port. It wasn’t as much as he wanted, but it would cause the damaged starboard side to ride high, moving the breaches partly above the water line.
Commander Ardlee joined him just as his team opened the water door that went down into the sleeping berths. The previously flooded compartment now stood only waist deep. Climbing down, he could finally see the hull breach up close.
It was an ugly wound to his ship. A jagged rip, at least two hands wide, cut through the steel plating, showing the stormy sky beyond. As the boat rocked in the storm waves, it would crash in sloshing more water into the room. But with the vessel listing to port, the breach was just above the waterline.
“Get some hull patches in here. We can seal this one up completely,” Reinvo shouted back up.
“Cheers for the captain!” someone called out, and the crew shouted enthusiastically.
Pain and aches forgotten, he smiled. “We’re not out of the water yet, boys. Get down here and seal this up.”
Ardlee jumped down into the water, joining him. “That was an inspired idea, Captain,” Ardlee commented.
Glancing at the men moving to patch the hole under the direction of Kilthin, he felt as if the weight of the ship sat on his back. “We aren’t out of danger yet. That’s an urdin big breach. If it is the same or worse further back, we’ll have to sail to the Split Queendoms tilting like a drunken sailor.”
“Better drunk than drowned,” Ardlee said, and Kilthin murmured his agreement just loud enough to be heard.
Reinvo didn’t comment. He was staring at the half flooded room at the next water hatch. Beyond the sleeping births were the galley, food stores, machine shop, and engine rooms. The food stores were against the hull, but they were stacked three high. If they had been properly locked shut maybe a third would be lost to this gash in the hull.
Reinvo prayed silently to the Star Empresses that the food stores were still sealed. He sloshed through the compartment, the cold water relieving some of his aches. Or maybe it was just that the weight was being taken off his legs from his buoyancy.
Reaching the door, he spun the locking wheel releasing the seals. The door swung open, and he was greeted with the stores compartment, also flooded above his waist. With Ardlee right behind him, he moved in and carefully reached up to one of the top store lockers. With a twist, he pulled the door open on the dry cupboard filled with sealed jars of grains. A couple of jars had broken or cracked but most looked to be in good shape. He closed that locker and opened the one next to it. It too proved dry. He looked at all the lockers below the waterline.
“Commander, get all the food preserves above the waterline out of here and up to a safe compartment. We’ll open the starboard lockers last. Get the pumps working on clearing the water out.”
“It’ll take most of the night, sir.”
“I know. Just get it done. And order a few men to getting some rest. We still have to get to engineering. We can make do with a rotation now.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Sir?” Coxswain Hensi called.
Ardlee and Reinvo moved back across the room to the ladder they’d come down.
“Captain, you need to come up to the bridge, sir.”
As they started climbing up out of the water the ship’s bell rang midnight.