V.O.C. of the People

Birds of Paradise
A Confession

It was a lovely evening, spent in one of the local taverns, just the three of them, as it always was. Paradise was under the watch of the crew, all of whom they had come to trust. They had been enjoying a good laugh when Avi suddenly got to her feet. She pulled her hair over her shoulder, with it’s wild mix of sun and sky, and fidgeted with it for a moment.

“Smeb? Jamal.”

She adjusted her shoulders, her wings lowered and tucked close to her back. Her mismatched eyes drifting up to his face then down to the tankard in his hand, to make sure he had enough to drink, in case he did not like what she had to say.

“Captain?” he inquired.

Both sets of eyes were on her. “You are a great Quartermaster and Second Mate,” she blurted the words out, almost too quickly and had to catch a breath before beginning again. “Let me say this without interruption, please.”

She felt the heat rise to her cheeks, perhaps that was from her empty tankard, but she doubted it this time. She was trembling, her stomach dropping and rushing back and heartbeat was in her throat. She knew she needed to say it soon. Her eyes flicked up, again, to his face, a face she had grown fond of and it made her smile.

“You are,” she paused, she had not thought through what she was going to say. Perhaps she had had too much to drink. Her hesitation caused a worried glance between her two friends. “You have been at my side since I almost fled the Songbird.” She winced at the memory but pushed forward. “You have been a shoulder to cry on, and the hands that held me up.” She glanced at Charlie. “As have you, Charlie.”

Charlie gave her a grin but there was still worry set in the first mates eyes.

“N-now, I have been doing a lot of thinking, and I think I am right about this. I-I am still young and inexperienced, but-but-” she drifted off, lowering her gaze. She could see Smeb’s feet move as he stood up. He was going to comfort her, if he did that she would not be able to get the words out. She lifted her head, in the proud way they had come to expect. “I am falling in love with you, Jamal.”

He froze and the world felt like it was spinning around her, ready to crash and break, until a smile spread across his lips. He took her cheeks between his two hands.

“Fatat jamila,” were the only words he spoke before his lips caught hers.

“About time!” Charlie cheered, raising her tankard and taking another swig as she leaned back in her chair.

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Sharks and Charcuterie

Gerhart DeWitt breathed in the fresh country air and let out a contented, if not overindulgent, sigh. “It was very generous of you to invite me to your lovely estate. It isn’t every day I get to dine with a member of the Board.”

Adam Van Hett allowed himself a gentle smile as he admired his surrounded. “You are very kind, Mr. DeWitt. But the honor is mine.” He took a small sip of wine and savored the flavor for a moment before swallowing. “The VOC’s chief enforcer is such a busy man, it is a rarity to get a moment of his time, let alone his presence at dinner.”

“You are lucky I was free, I won’t deny that.” Gerhart confessed with a smirk.

The two men sat in silence for a moment, feasting their eyes on the rolling hills before them, painted in hues of yellow and gold in the Dutch twilight. The small table between them was decorated in light snacks of bread, cheese, and cured meats, each of which had been picked at by Adam and Gerhart while they awaited their dinner. An early summer breeze crawled gently across the grounds, rustling leaves and blowing waves across the hills.

From behind them, the sharp clicking of hard leather on cobbled stone signaled the arrival of Christof, Adam’s butler. “Terribly sorry to interrupt, Mr. Van Hett, but a wire has just arrived.”

Adam let his gaze break away from the landscape, but he did not meet Christof’s. “Inform them we have gone for a walk in the gardens, and shall return within the hour.”

“Of course, sir, but the wire is actually for Mr—”

“Yes, Christof, I am aware. Please, inform them we have gone for a walk in the gardens. We shall return within the hour.” Gerhart stiffened a bit in his chair.

Christof hesitated for only a moment, his powdered wig rustling slightly as he fought the urge to protest further. “Very good, sir.” Without another word, he turned on his heel and excused himself from the two men’s company. Gerhart raised a questioning eyebrow.

Adam adjusted to face Gerhart more directly before speaking. “I suppose that is as apt a segue as I could ask for.” He took another brief sip of his wine before setting the glass down. “Mr. DeWitt, I was hoping to speak business with you for a bit this evening.”

Gerhart let his curious face drop, and replaced it with a more pleasant one. “As both your guest and subordinate, it would be horribly rude of me to deny you that, sir.” His smirk had returned, and his posture began to relax. “What is it you wish to discuss?”

“The wire Christof came to inform us of would be Carolien.”

Gerhart hesitated. “Carolien, my boss?”

“The very same,” Adam replied. Gerhart made to ask further questions, but Adam gently signalled to listen. “That she is looking for you here means that she is already on your trail, and will likely be sending a man on foot. I’d guess we have only a few minutes to speak before he arrives.”

Adam took a brief moment to spread some cheese on bread before taking a small bite, savoring both its delicious flavor and the tension he could see etched in Gerhart’s face.

After letting the man suffer for a beat, he swallowed his bite and continued. “You are going to be asked to head home immediately and pack for several weeks away.” Noticing the confusion on Gerhart’s face, he added “on a mission.”

Understanding washed over Gerhart as he leaned back, realizing he’d been on the edge of his seat. “I see.”

“Not yet, you don’t,” Adam interjected. “Carolien is going to give you detailed information on an A.L.A.N. unit. It was spotted attempting to infiltrate a VOC facility in the caribbean a few hours ago.”

“An A.L.A.N. unit? Aren’t black ops a bit outside of their wheelhouse?”

“This is no ordinary A.L.A.N unit. This one has a bit of a reputation as a troublemaker, and keeping other troublemakers as company. It’s also fully self-aware, and insists on being recognized as a person, not a gad.”

Gerhart felt his confusion wash away for the second time this conversation. “I am familiar with him. I haven’t interacted with him directly before, but he’s part of a group I’ve been tracking for some time.”

“Yes, I’m aware of this,” Adam said. “And that familiarity is exactly why this mission is being handed to you. Alan’s actions this afternoon earned him a VOC-sized target on his back, and you’re being sent to deactivate him by—”

“Wait, deactivate him?” Gerhart interrupted.

“—by any means necessary,” Adam continued, his voice stern. “Congratulations, in a few minutes, you are going to be a contract killer.”

Gerhart swirled his wine idly, his gaze unfocused as he worked his way through everything. After a moment, he drew in a breath to speak. “So, why are you telling me all this, if I’m minutes away from hearing it directly from Carolien?”

“Because,” Adam said, his tone calmer, “You’re not going to find him.”

Gerhart’s eyebrow shot up in curiosity. “I think you underestimate me, sir.”

“I do not,” Adam said reassuringly. “In fact, I think I know you better than anyone else on the Board. But you still aren’t going to find him.”

“And why is that?” Gerhart asked

“Because you’re not going to look for him.”

“I’m not?”

“No. You’re going to fall extremely ill upon your arrival to the caribbean, and will remain bed bound until the VOC gets frustrated and pulls you home.”

“How do you know this?”

Adam reached into his pocket and retrieved a small vial. “Because you’re going to poison yourself with this. One sip at dinner will have you looking nice and miserable by morning, and will keep you that way until bed the next night. Simply keep sipping at it for as long as you need.” He judged the vial for a moment before offering it across the table. “I’m told the symptoms are far more comfortable than they look.”

Gerhart looked at the vial for a moment, then back at Adam, utterly baffled. “Why, on heaven or earth, would I do this?”

Adam, shrugged a bit, placing the vial on the table in front of Gerhart before scooping up his wine. “Because you really like money, Mr. DeWitt, and this is an easy way to make a lot. By the time you get back, I wouldn’t be surprised if your accounts had an extra two-hundred thousand guilders in them.”

Gerhart blinked a bit in approving contemplation; it was a lot of money. “Won’t that look suspicious?”

Adam regarded his wine as though he hadn’t heard the question. “I work in mergers and acquisitions. If my team didn’t know how to cook books, the company wouldn’t function.”

Gerhart nodded, conceding the point. “Okay, I’ll think about it.” He noticed something over Adam’s shoulder, and Adam turned to see what he was looking at. An approaching courier waved at their notice, and picked up his pace.

Adam turned back to Gerhart and lowered his voice. “You will do no such thing. I only have room on my team for men of action, not hesitance and contemplation. You will answer me now.”

Gerhart’s eyes widened slightly at this new intensity. “Why do you want this?”

“Because, the VOC is—” Adam straightened up slightly as he heard the courier come within earshot. He frowned briefly at the new member of their conversation, but quickly adopted a more genial facade. “Simply put, the bitch was too old and sick to keep living a life of comfort, and keeping her around was making everyone else miserable.” He paused for a moment, and waited until Gerhart’s gaze had locked with his.

“So I decided to put her down.”

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When no one is listening

Across the sea
My Songbird sings to me
I feel her heart beat
When we’re apart
She’s a part of me

~

Beyond the sea
My Songbird, she sleeps
Out of reach
We’re apart
She’s so far from me

She’s a part of me

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A Reason to Stay

Avinnia’s cabin was not much to look at, particularly now as she had packed up all of her belongings. She was sitting with a few candles lit on a little table. Beyond the table there was no furniture in the room. Not a bed, nor a chair. There were blankets beneath her, likely where she would sleep and a pillow, that she had left out, not having room to take her bed with her.

There was the briefest knock on her door before Smeb entered. It was late into the night, the morning sun likely to rise soon. His eyes darted around, pausing on the many birds and their nests, before stopping on Avi. “Spymaster,” he greeted her.

Avi’s head lifted enough for her too look at him with red and swollen eyes. She pushed her golden and blue hair away, it longer than it had been when they had first met. Her belongings are still packed, tucked away in a bag pressed into her hip. She glanced at him, apprehensively.

Coughing briefly, to clear his throat, he lifted a dark glass bottle that is stained with dust and fingerprints. “I, uh… grog?” he asked, expectantly and with a look of hope in his eyes.

She answered his question with only the smallest nod. “I hope you do not mind sitting on the floor. I’ve never had much use for personal furniture.” Her eyes slipped over to her sleeping birds. “My father would disapprove greatly.”

He pulled two tin tankards from no apparent place and set them on the floor, in front of him, as he fell into a cross-legged position on the floor. He uncorked the bottle and poured two generous portions, before he picked one up and offered it to Avi.

“Your father? What was he like?

“He tried to have me executed,” she responded as she took the mug, her sullen expression was unchanged.

“Yes, fathers will do that.” He paused to take a hearty swig, then wipes his mouth with his sleeve. "In my case, it wasn’t my father, but hers, but execution was on the plate all the same.

“Her’s?” Avi’s gaze had lifted to look at him, a familiar spark of curiosity returned to her sad eyes..

“Sajida.” His eyes fell to his tankard for a moment. “She was my friend. She was of higher birth than I, and it was not my place to keep her company as I did. When he father learned of me, he was most displeased.”

She lifted her own tankard and finally took a small sip. “How did you survive?”

“I found a ship, and hid. When they found me, they were too far at sea to turn back, so they made me work.” His gaze drifted around the room with a glimmer of affection. “I have come a long way from that first job.”

There were a few scatterings of letters that she had written on the floor.

“You do a great job.”

He let a broad smile run across his face and the look in his eyes deepened, before he turned his gaze to Avi. “I do try.” He took another sip, much smaller this time. “I remember hearing you were from Iceland. Is it true that it is always winter up there?”

“It was colder than places we have seen.” Her lips grew tight at the memory. “It was cold in my room at least.”

His gaze narrowed and his eyes focused on her. “Do you miss it?”

“Miss it?” the words left her lips with a bitter laugh that she had not expected. She stared away from him and took another sip. “Miss the gilded cage? The weeks in isolation? The poking and prodding of my father’s doctors looking for a way to cure their mormel of a daughter?”

“So do you?”

“No. Even my sister thought I was a monster. Dashiell was the only one who still cared and he set me free. My father ordered him to kill me and he set me free.” The tears had returned to her, streaming down her cheeks.

He noticed the tears and pulled his head back a bit, but did not withdraw. “So someone did care for you. This makes you a lucky girl. There are many who are not born with your wings or your feathers, but who still do not have any to love them.” He breaks his gaze and notices a finch on Avi’s shoulder. “Even though my family had no love for me, and would do nothing to save me, I still felt pain when we saw Cairo that day.”

She lowered her tankard. “…Cairo…” her voice was only a whisper. “I sent Kharrakh home. I set him free.”

He studied her for a moment. “Kharrakh loved you too, I think, in his own way.” He took another heavy swig. “This evening got sad quickly.” He gestured to the finch. “Where did you find this one?”

She seemed confused by the change of subject but turns her attention to the finch. She stared at it for a long moment, silent and recalling. “They show up everywhere I go. I do not even need to offer to them anymore. This one was not here until after we arrived in port.”

He was quiet for a moment, drinking in Avi and the room, and all the space in between. “I do not wish for you to leave, Avinnia. You are kind, and you are sweet, and you remind me every day of all that is good in both this world and my life.” He breathed softly, for only a second. “And if you leave, I fear others will leave as well. One by one, I will lose everything I have ever wanted, and the best life I have known will slip away from me.”

“They believe I am a mormel, Smeb.” She looked at him with a soft but heartbroken expression. A few strands of her hair slipped into her face. “I thought I had found a family.”

“And what makes you think you have not? Alan is a walking piece of metal who can bring soldiers back from death. Farrah was betrothed to an actual demon. Mel has nam mae with the Ocean, by Allah. This is the greatest family in the world for you, fatat jamila, and they love you more than the sky loves the sea. So what if they think you are mormel. You are mormel, and that is what makes you so special. Like this ship and her outlandish crew, you are from beyond the horizon itself, and it is that very strangeness that makes you beautiful.”

He looked down, suddenly aware that he was standing and breathing heavy. He took a moment to look embarrassed before swallowing it.

“And besides, fighting and hating each other, this is what families do. You hear every story from every family, how they squabble over dinner, how they slam their doors. But you also hear the stories of how they pick up the pieces every time, and come to help when they are needed.” He took a big swig and finished his tankard. “You are needed Avinnia, just as much as I am.”

She watched him, in silence, but with all her attention. She did not know how to respond, or if she had ever been told that she was needed. If she had it had been lost to her. Smeb was not the only one that wanted her to stay, Charlie would too. But she was so sure that the Captain would want her gone after what had happened. And Farrah’s drunken words still pierced her heart.

“I do not want to go, Smeb. I never wanted too. I am so afraid.”

“Then stay, fatat jamila, stay here with your friends, your family. I swear on the ashes of Cairo that If the Captain wants you gone, that I will leave with you.” He paused, reading her. “But he will not.”

She lowered her gaze to her tankard which was only slightly empty. “You are so sure.”

“Sure that you have found a family? Yes, upon this I would stake my life. The Captain is a quiet man, and is slow to make his decisions, but he is not unkind. He-like you, like everyone on this ship-has suffered a great loss, and he is not so callous to send those who need him most away. You will stay. And if you will not stay here, then neither shall I.”

“I do not understand why you would give up your life on this ship over me.”

“I do not believe I will have to.”

Her face crinkled as she wanted to understand but found no answers in his words She sighed ever so softly before taking a larger swallow. “I will remain on the ship.”

He sat back down and refilled his tankard before offering it up for a toast. “I will drink to that.”

She looked at his tankard before lifting up her own. “Thank you, Smeb.”

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How My Heart Breaks
So hard to say goodbye

Everything came crashing down around her, first Farrah had called her a monster, and then the Captain had referred to Kharrakh as a pet. Mel had once named Kharrakh a monster. They were beasts to the people she had thought were her family. She had ignored the knowledge as long as she could, but she knew that Farrah wished to eliminate all like her. Her sisters, her mother, and Kharrakh alike. It was all too familiar. Her human parents and sister had thought of her in such a way. They had ordered her executed. She had run then, she would run now. What choice did she have? She was about to disobey they Captain again, and the last time she had done that he had warned her that he would have her off the ship.

The way he had looked at her, when she had only been trying to prove Kharrakh was defending himself, was enough to tell her that she had to do this. No, she knew before that, as the words slipped through her mind, from Kharrakh. He hated it on Earth, he didn’t belong, he hated not fighting, not being with his people. She had let her desire for family imprison him. She had to let him go, but she had to do so before Phillip would act.

She said nothing as she returned to Kharrakh. She remained silent as she tugged him to his feet. Her steps were hurried, she did not want to be stopped, she did not want to be questioned. She had to do this now.

“Mother,” her mind rang. “Mother, I need you.” She heard Kharrakh question what they were doing but she was silent. She could not tell him, it hurt to much to say goodbye.

“I am always here for you,” her mother’s voice returned to her.

“I need a favor,” she replied, already far into the city.

The harpy that she had learned to be her mother was at their side in an instant. The sky above them darkening with her sisters. Kharrakh was questioning again.

“I need you to take Kharrakh home,” the words slipped out of her lips, her voice cracking with pain. For a moment she could feel him thinking, hesitating, and then he understood and stepped to her mother’s side.

“I will take good care of him,” was all her mother said. Then they were gone, and the dark above her head disappeared as her sisters left as well.

Avi did not move, the tears streaming down her cheeks, her heart had never ached so, she thought perhaps it had vanished with him. It was several minutes before she turned to go back to the Songbird, there was more to do.


Avi went straight to her room, she had much to do. The dinner bell sounded and everyone was headed up. She needed to hurry, the distraction of the meal was what she needed, or she would have to wait until after everyone went to bed. Little Tip was snuggled up into her neck as she began to scrawl her farewells onto parchment.

Dear Charlie,
You have been a dear friend. I never thought that you judged me for what I am, or where I must have come from. Perhaps Farrah is right, perhaps I was never human, and if that is true then I never belonged here. But, I thank you, Charlie, for never making me feel that way. I hope that you never step foot in Van Dagon again. I wish you the best of lives.
Love from Avinnia

Farrah,
I wish it wasn’t true, but I know how much you despise my kind. I am sorry for what happened to your family and your people. It was horrible, and I know how hard it has been for you to have Kharrakh aboard this ship, but worry not, as you will, hopefully, never see him again. If marriage is what you wish from your life, I hope you find it. I hope, that for a moment, we were friends.
Avinnia

Dearest Captain Phillip,
You welcomed me aboard your ship, unafraid of what I was, until the day I learned I was telepathic. I listened to you, obeyed your commands to only use my powers when it was needed. The night of the opera I had to go against your wishes, and I felt horrible, but I could not let that woman cast her spell on you. Tonight, I tried to show you what happened so you would believe what I was saying, none of it a lie, but the eyes that I saw look at me…Well, you do not have to kick me off your ship, I will already be gone. I really looked up to you, I really thought I had found a family, but I can not bare the looks of fear and the words of hate that tare at my heart. Thank you, for everything you have taught me. There were days where you made me feel quite special. Goodbye, Phillip.
Avinnia

Avi finished off with short messages to Mel,_ ..I hope you are always with the ocean_, and to Alan, …you are the kindest doctor I have ever known, with the rest to the other crew that she had known the most. She left these letters sprawled across her floor and gathered up her few belongings.

“Come along, my sweets, it is time to fly.”

Her birds fluttered up and the smallest of which gathered in her wings. She made her way to the deck. The hardest part was going to get off the ship without being stopped.


It was not as easy as Avi had hopped, to leave the ship. Smeb had noticed her and cut off her path. She looked at him, the tears still fresh in her swollen eyes, her face damp.

He spoke first, “The Captain says you need to stay on the ship.”

Avi’s head shook, side to side, as she responded. “Tell the captain there are letters, that will explain, in my bunk.”

“If you leave, like this, the Captain’s not gonna let you come back.”

“I do not plan to come back, Smeb,” her voice broke.

Smeb’s expression changed to one of sadness. “You’ll be missed,” he spoke slowly.

“Only by a few,” she barely got the words out, as a few more tears slipped down her cheeks.

“I don’t think so,” he began but she was beginning to walk past him. “Can we get drinks first? Just you and me, Avi. We’ll talk. There are a lot of people that will want to know where you are going, if you go now.”

She hesitated and half turned back to him. Her head bobbed in a nod, unable to speak.

“Just stay, for now, I’ll come by when my watch is over.”

Her head dipped again and she squeezed her arms around the small bag she was holding.

“I just hurt, so much, Smeb.” She did not wait for him to respond, before she moved back down the steps and headed for her room.

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Phillip's Night

Knock knock

Phillip rapped a knuckle on Farrah’s door and paused to listen.

“Yes, come in,” came the muffled answer.

He pushed the door open, and found Farrah in bed studying some sort of document. He hesitated in the doorway, momentarily concerned about impropriety, before shutting the door and taking a seat at her desk.

“Here, drink this. It will help.” Phillip extended a cup toward Farrah. She eyed the brown sludge in the cup, but took it nonetheless.

“Thank you, Captain.”

“I know how it looks, and it tastes even worse. But Fabio makes it for me when morning…disagrees with me.”

Farrah took a sip and grimaced, but choked it down. Phillip waited for her to finish the concoction.

“What happened?”

“I had a…delicate matter to discuss with Avi. Things must have gotten out of hand.”

“Whatever you said to her, I don’t think she took it well.”

“Oh?” Farrah’s brow furrowed, struggling to remember the day’s events. It was almost cute, Phillip thought. He tried in vein recall to his own first hangover.

“I do seem to recall the end of the conversation getting a bit derailed. Talking about humans and Strangers and the other world…”

As she spoke, Farrah’s fingers curled, crushing the document in her hands. She didn’t seem to notice.

“In either case, I’m sure it will be fine now. Alcohol is like a demon. It makes people do strange things.”

Phillip rubbed his eyes and sighed. "And sometimes it makes you hurt people. I don’t know what you said to Avi but you hurt her.” Phillip’s face grew serious.

“If you want to drink, that is your business. Lord knows you’ll be in good company. But this crew has been through enough these past few months. I can’t have any more problems.”

Phillip braced himself for an argument, but none came.

“Of course, Captian!” Farrah leaned forward, taking his hand in hers. Her skin was soft, in spite of her frequent work in the engine room. “I never want to drink again. It is unclean and it clearly has unintended repercussions. It has made me feel horrid, though this drink has helped.”

Farrah stared into Phillip’s eyes. "You have led this crew through hell and back. You never left anyone behind. That takes great courage and strength. I would never want to cause you any problem.”

Phillip smiled, surprised and relieved.

“Now, how is that arm feeling?” Farrah’s attention turned to Phillip’s other arm as he knew it eventually would.

Phillip laughed. “If I had a gilder for every time I swore off drinking I would be richer than the V.O.C. Just be more careful in the future, Farrah.”

She giggled. “If you stopped drinking you might sleep more, Captain.”

He sighed. "Sometimes it helps the sleep come.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“The arm is…functional. A little sore.” She didn’t need to know how much it hurt.

“Oh! I might be able to help with that!” Farrah hopped out of bed and reached for a small pot. A pleasant smell filled the room and Phillip relaxed slightly.

Farrah pinned up her hair, and for a moment Phillip was entranced by the ritual, and by the smooth skin of her exposed neck. She moved behind him.

“Relax, Captain. This could even help the arm move more smoothly.”

Phillip felt the gentle pressure of Farrah’s hands as she worked them from his neck down his shoulders and back.

“You know, my mother used to do this for my father.” Phillip tensed, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.

“He would get so stiff from sitting in negotiations all day," she explained. "She would spend hours massaging him. Like he was the sultan himself.”

Farrah ran her hands over the strap that kept the mechanical arm attached.

“Maybe you should leave the arm here with me. For adjustments.”

Phillip helped her remove the arm, struggling to mask his discomfort. As Farrah began the massage again, guilt began to creep into Phillip’s gut. Their relationship was easier than ever now, but it was only an illusion. He made a mental note to speak with Livingston again.

The guilt had not left him as he laid in bed that evening. With a sigh, he walked to his desk, retrieved a bottle, and took a swig. It would help the sleep come.

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Inquiries and Injuries
In which a knife is twisted

“I suppose one of us should probably help him to his bunk,” Godfrey Livingston observed, watching Johann stumble across the deck towards the stairs. He wasn’t terribly fond of the combative engineer, but the man was just as a much a part of the crew as he was, and that counted for something. He looked over at Avi, with whom he’d been speaking, who looked at Johann as impassively as Livingston had felt. “Right,” he resigned. “I’ll go give the chap a hand.”

He cleared the deck with a few steps of his lengthy stride, and was behind Johann in a short moment. Trying to avoid startling the man, he mustered the best sailor’s greeting he could think of. “Bit early to be tanked, wouldn’t you say?”

Johann attempted to flash Livingston an angry glare, but his deeply inebriated state left it looking more like a suggestive glance. “Not ev’rybuddy cn’ deny through th’r trubbles as well as you English,” he sputtered out, nearly falling over in the process.

Livingston held out a hand to steady Johann as he stumbled, catching the man with one giant bear paw. “Yes yes, quite cutting. Come on.” He tried to steady Johann, but the engineer only collapsed further into his arm. “Okay,” he sighed, hefting the man over his shoulder. “Let’s get you to the doctor.”

“Yanno,” Johann started, his head lolling around with each of Livingston’s massive steps, “I’ve b’n thrown off ev’ry ship in the Atlantic, and I’ve nev’r met a moth’rfuck’r as crazy ‘s you.” Livingston didn’t respond, which Johann took as permission to press on. “No, I’m s’rious. You got the stones to pissss ‘ff the chief, ‘n then you j’st let ‘er fester ‘n it. No fights, no shout’n, j’st cold ‘atred.”

“Yes, well you’re sprinting down that path as well, my lad,” Livingston replied. Johann made a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a gag.

“Nope, ‘s’where yer wrong, sail’r,” Johann burped. “Chief knows damn well why she ‘ates me. S’cuz I’m a cock to ‘er. Talk’n back, disobeying ord’rs, n’ g’nerally bein’ churlish.” He enunciated the last word with unusual clarity before falling back into his slurred rhythm. “She thin’s I’m a child, but she thin’s yer ‘er daddy.”

Livingston set Johann down at the top of the stairs outside the Infirmary, a hard anger painted on his face. “There is far more to you than insubordination, and you are very lucky that the chief and the captain haven’t seen it yet. If I were you’d I’d consider finding a new job before they find one for you.” Gesturing to the door at the base of the stairs, he made to end the conversation. “You can see yourself the rest of the way.”

“‘J’st sayin’, s’all. Wh’n you plannin’ on liftin’ that spell ye’ got ‘er und’r?”


Johann had been in a lot of fights before. Hell, he’d been punched in the face more times than he could count on his fingers and toes combined. He had taken more than his fair share of knocks to the jaw and had gotten up swinging from every single one of them.

Until this one, that was.

The difference between all of those punches and this one was that this one had a charging rhino behind it. It wasn’t fair to bring a sledgehammer to a fistfight, and he was pretty sure that was exactly what Livingston had done. His head was so cloudy that he barely noticed the other punches, and when Livingston finally let him fall, he was already on the verge of blacking out anyway. The last leg of his journey to the doctor felt less like a tumble down the stairs, and more like a fall from the gallows.

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Farrah's night

knock knock

The sound of the door startled Farrah as she sat in bed reading a technical schema for a prosthetic knee. Her head pounded in time with the knocking.

“Yes, come in.”

The door opened to Captain Phillip, holding a cup of brown sludge. He hesitated in the doorway a second, seeing Farrah in bed, then shut the door and sat at her desk, facing the bed.

“Here, drink this. It will help.”

Farrah looks uncertain, but takes the cup. “Thank you, Captain.”

“I know how it looks, and it tastes even worse. But Fabio makes it for me when morning disagrees with me.”

The sludge tasted like barnacles and wood mold, but Farrah remembered coaxing skittish merchants into taking the medicine the University slaved over. Just choke it down. It’s good for you.

Phillip watched Farrah’s face crumple in disgust, solemn and tired.

“What happened?”

Composing herself, Farrah answers in careful words. “I had a … delicate matter to discuss with Avi. Things must have gotten out of hand.”

“Whatever you said to her, I don’t think she took it well.”

“Oh?” Farrah tried to remember what exactly was said. Avi had not been much help with the marriage issue. She had talked about her family, not having a normal childhood. Could that have…

“I do seem to recall the end of the conversation getting a bit derailed. Talking about humans and Strangers and the other world…”

Farrah’s hands clench in the bedclothes, crushing the schema she had been studying. Nothing was worse than getting flashbacks of that world. The filthy insidious way it got inside you. The way you felt unclean after walking through it. The way it was alway looming, threatening as a thunderhead, just on the edge of reality.

“In either case, I’m sure it will be fine now. Alcohol is like a demon. It makes people do strange things.”

Phillip uses his non-prosthetic hand to rub his eyes and sighs. “And sometimes it makes you hurt people.”

“I don’t know what you said to Avi but you hurt her.” The Captain meets Farrah’s eyes and frowns.

“If you want to drink, that is your business. Lord knows you’ll be in good company. But this crew has been through enough these past few months. I can’t have any more problems.”

Farrah studies the Captain’s face. He looks tired. Resolute. She would do any thing to help him.

“Of course, Captian!” Farrah leans forward to take his hand in hers. His roughened skin is warm. “I never want to drink again. It is unclean and it clearly has unintended repercussions. It has made me feel horrid, though this drink helped.”

Farrah meets Phillips gaze with her own. “You have led this crew through hell and back. You never left anyone behind. That takes great courage and strength. I would never want to cause you any problem.”

Phillip smiles. Farrah wonders why this feels different from the moment in the hallway. Nice, still, but very different from that desperate fluttering feeling.

“Now, how is that arm feeling?” Farrah turns her attention to her creation. The metal looks more weathered than she expected after such a short exposure to life at sea. She would have to find some means of protecting it from degredation.

Phillip laughs. “If I had a gilded for every time I swore off drinking I would be richer than the V.O.C. Just be more careful in the future, Farrah.”

Farrah giggles, suddenly seeing so young, so impossibly young after everything. “If you stopped drinking you might sleep more, Captain.”

“Sometimes it helps the sleep come.”

A brief moment of silence separates them. Farrah is unconsciously swaying to the motion of the waves beneath the hull.

“The arm is … functional. A little sore.” The words are a statement of fact, not a complaint. Phillip rolls his shoulder, and the mechanisms shift heavily.

“Oh! I might be able to help with that!” Farrah briskly folds back her sheets and hops out of bed, bare feet padding softly on the weathered floorboards.

Reaching over Phillip she brings out a small pot stoppered with wax. When she breaks the seal, the small room fills with the delicate scent of jasmine.

Phillip looks apprehensive as Farrah pins up her hair and positions herself behind him.

“Relax, Captain. This could even help the arm move more smoothly.”

Dipping a single finger into the pot of oil, Farrah rubs it into her hands and then into the muscles of Phillip’s neck and shoulder. Where her fingers meet metal, she gently rubs around and beneath the mechanisms. Her nimble work begins to ease tension from his neck, and she moves lower onto his back.

“You know, my mother used to do this for my father.” Farrah feels Phillip tense beneath her hand and hurried to explain. “He would get so stiff from sitting in negotiations all day, she would spend hours massaging him. Like he was the sultan himself.”

Working her slim fingers beneath the leather straps of the arm, Farrah notices the callouses forming in thick bands around Phillip’s torso.

“Maybe you should leave the arm here with me. For adjustments.” Farrah suggests lightly. Phillip is silent, but helps her remove the heavy prosthetic.

Pressing her palms firmly into the extensive scar tissue, newly raw from Alan’s emergency excision of the jade arm, Farrah does not even seem to realize she is humming an old lullaby.

Later, when the Captain is back in his quarters and Farrah is lying in bed listening to the ocean, she resolved to speak with Avi soon. Things would be set to rights again. Everything was going to be alright.

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Various Philosophies
Farrah's writing

Esteemed Dr. Crustevya,

Let us rest, for the moment, our political and philosophical debate. Your recent notes on internal surgery will take more time than usual for me to digest, if you’ll allow the small jest, and I have a more pressing need of your advice.

Namely, personal advice. As a woman, I feel that we could be confidantes, and through our correspondence I have come to trust your judgement. I will beg your judgement on a personal matter, though if I overstep the bounds of our friendship we may return to drier matters.

I am of a marriageable age, and though my family is obliterated and my fortune lost, I am not prospectless. Indeed, my position aboard the Songbird has put me in contact with a man suitable to both my station, and my person. However, though I think the partnership would benefit us both, I am unsure of how to arrange it, without parents or guardians of any kind to lead the negotiations.

If you were to marry, and had a suitor in mind, how would you go about solidifying the merger? Lacking any notable experience in this area, I throw myself completely upon your mercy. And I thank you with all the passion a friend’s heart can muster.

With best regards,
Farrah Al-Azar

Fel-ethet eilbee,

My eye’s light, I implore your kind guidance once more. Our ship, the Songbird, has gone through a realm of demons, and though I am in body and spirit safe, my mind is in turmoil. It is more pressing now than ever that the Al-Azar line be continued and strengthened. Please, heart of my own, send me word of how you fare. How are our people?

My soul aches to be reunited again, but until then let this correspondence remain unbroken and undelayed.

Love,
Farrah Al-Azar

From the journal of Farrah Al-Azar

No new advancements to engine. Seems to be unharmed from the recent journeys through the crossways.

Phillip’s arm has been corrupted. Must begin work on next prototype, perhaps with safety measures against the Orichalcum growth.

No response from correspondence. Will write again in two days time if no reply by then.

Avi and I are going shopping tomorrow. It will be good to speak with her on the matter of my plan. Perhaps she knows more about the customs than I do.

Though I remain logically committed to my course of action, it is strange that no new…moments have occurred since that night. I was led to believe being in love was more exciting than this. Perhaps I was mistaken, and this is how it always feels. Will ask someone if trend continues.

end journal of Farrah Al-Azar

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Ranks and Regrets

Harken pushed the batwing doors open as he strode into the tavern, anger resonating with every step of his heavy boots. The building was quiet and calm, though not for a lack of patrons; nearly every table was full, and customers spoke softly with their company. The tables near the door took notice of both Harken’s arrival and his especially sour glare, and many of the heads that turned to acknowledge his arrival had since returned their noses downward, as though in anticipation of a fight they wanted no part of.

The carpeted flooring and gentle lighting painted this place as an uncommonly upscale establishment, especially for this part of the Caribbean. The few patrons that weren’t regaled in military coats were instead decked in the jewelry and finery indicative of great wealth. Powdered wigs were uncommon in this far-flung corner of the British Empire—and even more so in such a maritime province as Havana—yet even a few of those could be spotted in this crowd.

The muffled thuds of Harken’s footfalls were joined by the slight jingle of metal buckles and clasps rustling in his coat as he moved, swiftly cutting across the tavern floor to the bar. Halfway to his destination, three others treaded into the tavern—slightly behind him, but close enough to still declare themselves members of his party. Unlike Harken, these three quickly spread out across the floor, each heading in a different direction, and each moving with a different purpose. Scanning faces, windows, tables, and doors, they inspected the establishment with a level of scrutiny normally reserved for thieves and murderers.

Harken approached the barkeep, placing one boot up on the foot rail and leaning against the bar with the cocksure manner of a man who owned the place. “Your dryest vodka, please,” he barked, not bothering to wait for the bartender’s attention.

The barkeep, a slender-yet-tall man with evenly parted hair and a finely waxed mustache, turned gently to face the gruff fellow before him. A derisive smile flashed across his face for the briefest of moments before he adopted a compassionate face. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid it’s terribly difficult to get vodka out here. Might I interest you in some rum instead? I have some selections that are quite difficult to find back in England.”

Harken let out a frustrated sound somewhere between a growl and the word “idiot,” then slapped a small coin on the bar and slid it forward. Tapping it pointedly with one finger, he locked eyes with the bartender. “I’ve come a long way, and I’ve had a very rough journey. Your dryest vodka, please.”

The bartender made to repeat himself, then paused, as a thought clicked in his brain. “Oh,” he simply said. “Oh, I see,” he continued, as his eyes fell to the coin. He inspected it for only a moment, then stepped away from the bar. “Yes, sir, I do believe that there might be a small bit stashed away. Please, let me show you what I have.” He strode around the bar and out from behind it, over to a door against the back wall. As he walked, he met eyes with each of the men that had followed him in, and nodded to them in turn.

Harken grumbled under his breath, pocketing the coin as he slid over to join the man. “Thank you,” he said as the barkeep pushed the door open, and passed through it. The latch locking shut made him look back for only a moment, but he quickly snapped forward to inspect this new room. Thicker, softer carpet, and a crackling fireplace in the back immediately lent a sense of luxury to this room. Paintings, framed maps, and thick bookshelves decorated the dark wooden walls, and model ships, antique sextants, and ornate compasses covered every flat surface. A faint smell of lavender even tickled Harken’s nose as he struggled to take in all the finery about him.

“Missing home yet, Colour Sergeant?” A voice rose from an overstuffed armchair a few paces to Harken’s side, surprising him. “I can’t imagine you’ve had much in the way of creature comforts these last few years.” The man had piercing blue eyes, which shone out through his bushy eyebrows, and his thick grey whiskers concealed his mouth. Though clearly at least a decade Harken’s senior, he stood tall in his officer’s jacket and ascot, and his epaulets bore the insignia of a Brigadier, which only surprised Harken further.

Harken snapped to a crisp salute, immediately regretting his gruff demeanor and poor grooming. He wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a Brigadier this far out from England, and his slipshod appearance was wholly unbecoming of His Majesty’s Royal Marines, even under current circumstances.

“None of that out here, son, especially not in front of me,” the Brigadier said gently as he stood. “We’re working quietly from here out, and there’s no sense in telling people more than what they need to know.”

Harken allowed himself to relax a bit, though a stiffness lingered in his spine, as penance for his oversight from before. “As you say, sir. You’ll forgive me my poor appearance, I wasn’t expecting to be greeted by anyone more than a fresh-faced lieutenant.”

The Brigadier grunted as he walked over to Harken. “It’s already forgotten, Colour Sergeant, though it does bother me that you were planning on asserting yourself over your superior.” He stepped in close and inspected Harken’s face. “That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“No, sir.” Harken responded crisply, trying to keep his eyes unfocused despite the officer in his face.

“Good,” the Brigadier replied, turning on his heel and stepping away. “The Falconers don’t have time to be measuring cocks out here. Which, while we’re on the subject of time,” the Brigadier turned to face him again, this time from halfway across the room. “Would you care to explain why you’re two months late?”

Harken frowned, confused at the question. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand. We made excellent time, my men and I were onboard the Songbird for less than a week before we arrived.”

The Brigadier pursed his lips and made for a desk in the corner. “Colour Sergeant, my commission names me Brigadier Percival Patience. One thing you’ll learn quickly about Brigadier Patience is that I have none.” He grabbed the standing calendar on the desk and turned it to face Harken: June 21, 1718.

Harken felt his stomach flip as Brigadier Patience continued. “You were to report to my office in March. Your missives out of Manila led me to believe this would be the case. Even your letter explaining your departure across the Pacific sounded hopeful; I recall you mentioning a ship with Chaos Sails.” He leaned against the desk, rubbing his knee. “So why don’t you try that answer again?”

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