Saturday, October 3, 2009

15. Phosphorus


Blockade Runners

At night the water in the Ocean of Dreams is phosphorescent. Our galleon trails long swirls of blue and white and green in its wake. The creatures that dwell below are phosphorescent as well, in places and patches, according to their nature. Sometimes a great serpent will glide by beneath us, its spots all in a line as regular as the windows of a passing train. But larger, much larger! So large it can take an hour to pass us.

None of the crew are native to this life. I was a stockbroker in the waking lands. I never expected to become a privateer. I never expected to rise through the ranks to become captain. And I certainly never expected I'd someday operate under a letter of marque from Lucifer himself.

But these things happen.

We were positioned offshore of Arcadian Greece when we spotted three fat merchanters trying to ride the winds past our blockade. In quick order we engaged with them, and sent two ships to the bottom of the sea. The third we grappled with and boarded. After a brief but furious hand-to-hand, we were victorious. We took its treasure to add to our own, and scuttled the ship, sending it to join its sisters below.

That night (it is always night on the Ocean of Dreams), Will, the cabin boy, came to see me. "There's a noise in the for'ard storage, sir."

"Is there, now?" I seized my pistol. "Lead the way."

So we caught Midshipman Homer in the treasure locker. He'd broken open a chest of Stories and was greedily filling his pockets. The phosphorescence from within lit up his gloating face. How his expression changed when I cocked the pistol and laid it to his head!

All the crew turned out for the discipline. I stripped Homer of his rank. Then I blinded him with my own two thumbs. "You wanted Story?" I thrust a handful of the stuff into his mouth. "Eat it!"

Then I had him flung overboard.

Several nights later, young Will approached me and said, "It seems a harsh punishment on Midship—I mean, on Mister Homer."

"He was within swimming distance of Greece—just. If he guessed the right direction, he might have made it ashore. He could find work as a storyteller, then. The pay's not good, but it'll keep him alive."

"Why do we live like this? What makes Stories so important?"

I sighed. "I don't know, lad. It's possible that they make people stronger or wiser or better, somehow. The Devil doesn't want them to get through, and that's good enough for the likes of us."

Which was the end of that. But I had my eye on young Will now. He seemed a likely lad. So the next time we made port (in a dingy wooden London, in Renaissance England), I gave him a pistol and cutlass, and set him to guard the treasure room while I went ashore for provisions.

"Keep a sharp eye out," I told the boy, "and don't get any smart ideas."

The phosphorescent glow of our hoarded Stories bathed the lad in uncertain light. He stood to attention and said, "I won't, sir."

"See that you don't, Master Shakespeare," I said. "See that you don't."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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