Flashback story – Warren DeMontford
This is a story submitted as part of the Flashback week competition. It’ a story written by Sue Wilson about a tabletop rolplaying character.
The man they now call Warren DeMontford stares at the water drops freezing to the window. The image takes his thoughts to darker places and memories he does not want. Beyond that window had not been the white expanse of Antarctica. That time the other side of the pain showed the rolling ocean of the southern Atlantic. Still he leans his head against it and closes his eyes….
The SnowBird rolls again. He can’t afford to sleep, not properly. The waves are too large. He could head north in the hope of calmer seas, but it would lengthen the route and loose him more time, and he knows at least Peyron and Lamazou are ahead of him. He drags himself from the bunk and climbs back onto the deck to check the auto-pilot.
The waves throw the boat. Deep in the shadow of the trough the sky and sea are almost the same grey. It is impossible to tell whether the freezing water hitting him is spray or rain. Maybe this far south the water cycle has given up on such distinctions.
He moves forward to gather the sail, climbing up onto the top of the cabin. SnowBird pitches again, ducking down into the trough like a sledge, before crashing into the next rise sending the water cascading over him. He reaches the mast and slackens off. It will lose him time but if a big wave hits high and hard it could rip the mast right off the vessel and leave him stranded in the storm. The bight in the cleat holding the stay is covered in a thin sheen of ice. The line freezing to itself. He struggles with it, the breath of his cursing helping to ease away the cold. As the recalcitrant rope comes free he feels the boat start to pitch down again. The incline much steeper this time. He curses as he slides on the ice covered deck.
He looks up. And up.
The wave builds before him like the welsh cliffs of his childhood. Three or four crests hitting at once. He grabs at the railing and braces himself. Some instinct for survival slams the carabiner of his safety line down onto the cable he is holding, securing him to the boat. The sea lifts them both up, twisting the little vessel and dropping it back down again. The compass spins as it tries to keep up and the auto pilot whirs to correct the rudder. All he can do is hold on and pray SnowBird is built well enough to withstand these forces.
He hears something deep beneath the deck strain and then there is a load crack.
He holds his breath as another wave crashes over the front of the boat and pushes him back along the deck. He feels the safety line jerk him to a stop. Then there is a brief second of false hope before he hears the cable break.
He knows he is dead. If he hits the ocean in this he has only minutes, even in the survival suit. Hyperthermia will make it impossible to think. The boat is slick with ice and he will never get back on board. There is a second of empathy with his ancestors who never learnt to swim; They said if the White lady wants you she takes you, swimming only delays the inevitable.
His fingers lock on something as the water drags him away. Though numb with cold some how they hold firm. He rolls, feeling his shoulder wrench, but he is desperate to lift his head clear of the fluid so he can catch a breath. By chance his foot finds a stay and pushes against it. As the last of the wave drains clear he realises he is holding the catch to the aft locker, only a few centimeters of metal but some miracle guided his hand to it. Able to orientate himself at last he pushes up off the rudder assemble and back onto the boat.
Before him the wheel is spinning freely; betraying that something in the rudder assembly has broken. He looks up at the mast, the sail he was freeing gone now, dragged off by the wave, b at least it did not take the mast with it.
He rolls into the door of the cabin, pulling it shut behind him. His only option now is to wait for the storm to blow out and pray the damage is minor enough that he can do running repairs. He falls into his bunk, almost crying in frustration. Cursing his stupidity at taking such a southerly route at this time of year. He knows any hope of winning the race has gone.
Exhaustion and defeat drop him into a light doze, as the rocking ship is pushed around by the waves and wind. He daren’t sleep, the possibility of capsize is all to evident and he would never get out of the boat in time. But he is also aware that if SnowBird succumbs to the storm he has no where else to go. In this they will never find him; they may not even attempt a search. He would be just one more of the long list of names carved into the rock at Plymouth – those claimed by the sea. Just one small part of the family folklore told as a warning to adventurous nephews and nieces. He drags himself round realising, given the way he and Len parted company, probably not even that.
He pulls down the hood of his jacket, waiting for the next wave to slide him across the cabin in a vague attempt to save energy. He pulls out the self heating can of meat mush and slams the base, hugging it to maintain as much of the warmth for himself as possible. As he braces his legs against the galley fittings there is another crash on deck. Instinctively he ducks. The boat does not roll, there is no warning pitch to suggest another massive wave. For a moment he fears the mast has come down, but if that had happened there would be fragments everywhere. Confused he drops the can in the metal sink where it can finish heating and drags himself back out of the cabin.
There is a shape near the wheel, something large caught up in the remains of the rigging and deposited on the deck by the last large swell. At first he assumes it is a seal, it’s about the right size and shape, but as he approaches it he realises the form beneath the ropes and strips of sail is more humanoid.
It stops him. He looks round for a boat that the ‘Man Over Board” may have come from, but he is all to aware that in a swell this large their could be a vessel only a few hundred yards a way and he still might never see it. He moves closer to see if there is any identification on the body.
Then the body moves.
He jumps back, fear running through him. For a moment he is sure the ‘body’, is a pirate and this is some elaborate attempt to board and hijack SnowBird. He fights down the paranoia and moves closer.
The body is completely enwrapped by the rigging, effectively restrained by it and secured to the deck. If this is a hijack attempt it has gone very wrong. He looks round, checking the sea as much as for attackers. Then starts to pull the strips of sail away from the head.
The neck shifts, the head rolling back to look up at him. Large bulbous eyes, mostly black blink at him through blue green eyelids. The mouth moves, fronds around the lips waving limply. At the neck he sees slits like the gills of a fish flash open and then close again.
The beast emits a whistle. Long and forlorn and desperate.
Despite the impossibility of what he is seeing he moves quickly to strip way the rest of the destroyed sail and lines. The creature he reveals is sleek, it’s body covered in fine scales of shimmering blues and greens. It’s upper limps end in long clawed fingers; it’s lower ones thin and splaying out to become flippers. A line of fins run down it’s backbone, rising and falling as the creature labours to ‘breath’.
Another wave crashes over the boat. He grasps at the railing, holding onto the beast to stop it being lost into the sea. It leaves a pool of water on the deck, held there by the sail cloth. The creature rolls into it. The gill slits open once more.
The beast whistles again and then the noise is followed by a series of rapid clicks.
He looks at it confused. He knows the noise and has heard it before. Thought it takes a few moments to place where. The pod of dolphins that joined him a week ago and ran with SnowBird for almost a full day. He had been glad of their company on the long solitary voyage and had even shared some of his rations with the playful animals. The clicks had been almost the same as the noise they had made in response to the fish he had thrown to the pod. At the time he had amused himself with the idea that they were saying thank you.
He looks at the ‘fish man’ part in shock at the echo of the noise and the appropriateness of the concept.
“Your welcome.” he responds, and then feels foolish for doing so. It seems impossible the beast could know what he is saying.
It lies in the pool, breathing the water. It seems exhausted.
He looks back into the cabin, not sure what to do. Then he recalls the meat mush. May be the beast is hungry. He returns rapidly with the can and, ripping the top off, he holds it out.
The ‘fish-man’ lifts it’s head from the water, clearly sniffing the can. It flops back and opens it’s mouth. He scoops out some of the food and drops it into the waiting maw, carefully to avoid getting too close to the numerous sharp teeth.
The creature chews, swallows then opens it’s mouth again.
“Guess we’ve finally found some one who likes this shit.” He observe.
He drops in another scoop and then claims a few mouth fuels for himself. It is warm and nutritious but none of the scientist who developed it cared enough to consider the taste or texture. Perfect for emergency rations his old commander used to claim in that “it would have to be a bloody emergency for you to want to eat the crap.”
By the time the tin is empty the creature seems to be coming round. It even risks sitting up for a few moment, despite the problems that brings with it’s breathing.
He nods to the remains of the sail. “I’m sorry, I was trying to get it in when the wave hit.”
The creature tilts it’s head and whistles low.
He risks standing up, the sea is calming now, the storm finally blowing itself out. Though the waves are still rocking them there is no sign of the massive peeks and troughs that had threatened to swamp them. He moves over to the wheel and spins it, trying to diagnose the damage.
The creature whistles again.
He turns, “Rudders broken.” He says. “Can’t steer.” He looks up at the sky half in hope of a rescue plane though he knows there will never be one. “I’m fucked.” he confesses.
There is a wet slapping noise. He turns to see the creature is standing awkwardly on it’s flippers, almost on tip toes. Clearly it is not really designed for ‘land’ at all. It moves over to him and looks into the cabin.
“Know much about ship-righting do you?” He asks.
The creature emits another series of clicks, but not like the dolphin ones.
He turns round and releases the catch on the deck, pulling up the cover to reveal the rudder mechanism beneath. There is a metal spar clearly bent out of shape, and a pin deeper on the system that has snapped- he concludes that was the noise he heard earlier. He reach’s in pulling out the pin to confirm his worst suspicion. This is not something he has in the spares.
He drops back on the deck trying to come up with a solution. He could jury rig a replacement pin but the bent bar will offer more of a challenge, and he knows that it will only bend again in the next big swell.
The Fish-man reaches into the hole and touches the damaged rod.
“Yeap that’s knackered.” he says.
The beast looks up with it’s black bulbous eyes.
He stares into them, seeing his own reflection staring back.
“I’m drowning, aren’t I? This is some end of life hallucination. It must be or I would not be taking things so calmly.” As he hears himself say it he knows it is not right. “What the fuck are you?”
The Fish-man whistles again.
“What are you doing on my planet?” He challenges.
The creature looks at him. It almost looks affronted. Then it reaches out and prods him in the chest with a loud series of clicks and whistles.
He looks down, the claws are sharp, it the creature wanted to spear him it could have done so easily, but it did not push hard enough. Instead he can only assume it was trying to make a point. He frowns at it. “You can understand me?”
“Great, I can’t understand you.”
The creature just stares at him and looks back into the mechanism.
“I’m in a race.” He says. “Single handed sailing. Round the world. I’m representing the British Royal Navy.” He explains. “I’m fucking it up royally enough.” he adds self disparagingly.
The creature moves round to the other side of the hatch looking at the mechanism from the other side. Then it seems to nod. It steps back and releases a series of whistles and clicks into the air.
He frowns at it. “Nope sorry pal, not getting you.”
The fronds around the mouth raise; Later when he knows the creatures better he will know this is their equivalent of a smile, he will also know that the clicks and whistles and prod pretty much translate as “What do you mean your planet Land boy!” but for now he is ignorant and just stares.
Then in a flash and a splash the beast is gone.
He had sealed everything down and climbed into his bunk. To tired and to defeated. There had been a brief moment between sunset and Dawn when had slept for the first time in a week. There was no longer any point in pushing to keep going. A short time after dawn he had come back on deck and found them. The pin and bar tied together in the lines still tangled round the wheel. But there had been no sign of the ‘fish-man’.
The replacement parts had served him well, back in the race again trying to prove that Britannia still ruled the waves. But at scrutineering in Rio the serial numbers didn’t match. The french competitor claimed outside interference, especially when he could offer no explanation as to how another competitors equipment had got on board his own yacht. There was talk of piracy until it was proved from GPS records that the vessel identified as the source of his spares had been scuttled and left to sink long before he arrived in the area.
After persuasion by ‘Men from the Ministry’ he changed his story. Claimed by chance he’d come across the vessel foundering in the deep seas. Boarded it and salvaged the parts he needed. What else could he tell them? No one would believe the truth anyway!
Back in Blighty and ‘Interview without Coffee’ with a gaunt private secretary to some nameless government department had made a temporary truth out of the lie, hiding the actual events away from him behind a geas; until years later when Capital Laundry Services needed an experienced Naval officer to negotiate with ‘Fish-Men’.
The sad truth was, now, many years later on again, he missed the lie. He like the scavenge and salvage version of events and the ‘one man triumphant against the sea’ it represented. The knowledge that he had received outside aid irked him. It was cheating. Better if he had drowned.
He wanted to be the man with all the answers, reliant on no one else the lie had lead him to believe he was.
He leans his head off the view point forcing his eyes to open. He turns to look at the two men beavering away on the samples and books, hunting for the solutions to the problems the Laundry has cursed them with today. Ian on the computers he can not touch, Dr Markham using the science he can not understand.
“Any closer to finding me something to kill?” He asks hopefully.
Dr Markham grimaces at him and turns back to his coloured potions.
Ian doesn’t even look up. “That might not be the solution War.”
“Fine, I’m gonna stick the kettle on. If any one fancies a drink…” he offers heading for the door to the pod and leaves them too it.
This work is inspired by Charles Stross Laundry Files book and uses characters. organisations and concepts created by Charles Stross. No challenge to the I.P. is intended by their inclusion in this work, which I wish to be considered Fan-Fic as outlined in Charles Stross’s Policy.
Consult http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/faq-fanfic.html for details.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.