Gray hell rose over the trawler’s bow. It pitched, speared a crest. The sea’s angry maw snapped between drinking-bird dips, Everest peaks, before the jaws closed for that brief moment of progress. In that way, each time it felt eternal, damned and condmened by unknown forces to test one’s endurance.
With it was a rhythm. The rise and fall of chestfuls of breath upon the vast sea of some infinitely-massive cosmic-being’s skin. Riding waves to their crests, as dust rides the twitching ripples of a sleeping giant.
More than that, it was like walking amongst Gods. Those few men whom first did so on the Moon, would again someday on Mars, and forever every planet after that. No matter how mundane it was became, it wasn’t in the moment and that was the point.
It was the ride. Sailing gravity. Surfing twenty tons of ship and cargo. Driven inexorably by gravity, diesel bass-rolls. Meanwhile the shrill-gales are constant. Rain persistent scattershot on steel. Hard, sub-zero buckshot held at-bay by fiberglass and hope.
The precious hope of two men too long ashore and too newly asea, but with a lifelong ambition; trawling. Fishing. No care but the sea and the weight and the rate. Even miles out waters, more or less total isolation, were still coastal waters. Further than that, were deep waters rarely traversed uncesssarily; country’s waters, bridged later by international waters beyond all potential shipping lanes now outmoded.
All of them, the pair called home. They’d long hoped to do so, the sea filled their veins as sure as blood fed their hearts.
Pate manned the helm, fearful of nothing. The sea swelled about him. Long-range satellites weren’t needed to tell him a fierce storm was brewing. The sea told him. Each rise. Each fall. Dipping scents of saltwalter. Bucking rudder-wheel beneath his hands.
Lou felt those too, decidedly trusted satellites, images, and guiding sciences more. His bones still creaked like the ages-old sailor cooped up inside him all his life. Creaks and science agreed; the sea’s mood was foul, growing fouler by the minute.
Even the air knew it.
Luck hadn’t won out much this long. A day from port, barely into a routine, and only a few hours of letting the currents work them. They’d barely felt things out, were hardly near a boon’s weights. Now, they could be crushed and it wouldn’t even be worth the weight.
Muscle and diesel had cast them off, the sea was ordering them in. Now.
Pate wouldn’t quit so easily though. His strength, daresay stubbornness, emboldened Lou’s own self preservation. Nonetheless, the latter kept himself nearby, half-eying charts, maps, satellite imagery, eyes and ears attuned to every new melody emerging in the persistent rhythm.
All told, things weren’t looking great. Tropical-storm and only getting started. It wouldn’t let up anytime soon. Then again, it had come from nowhere over only a few hours. The waters were too cold, the season too early. Science and reality were harsh mistresses to reconcile at times.
Pate wasn’t much for science. He rode through life on feeling. That was why he Captained the ship. Lou knew that. Like it or not, Pate was right. Captaining was about feel more than hard logic. He’d simply never had the knack, the skill or proper heart.
Self-management had taught Lou to do anything. Navigating and mating a ship was hardly applied rocketry. The dichotomy between he and his partner delineated their personal belief in science’s fundamentals.
Lou believed the laws of averages held ample room for anomalies that could allow it to thrive. Pate felt the utterly measured chaos merely muddied the pattern via the anomalies. It was chicken and egg between Einstein and Newton.
Compounded by this, Pate made room for only one or the other, missing the overall possibility that neither was mutually exclusive. That neither could mean both.
At some point or another, Pate had decided he no longer cared. Since then, challenging his way meant challenging an idle giant. No matter how much Lou wished to, he wouldn’t.
Thus the ship pitched and plunged. The swells grew. Their violence rocked the pair in their skin. Each rise fought gravity. Weighted, cement blocks pulled their guts. Each fall fought inertia that forced their guts in again.
The pace was sickening. Lou knew it was time. Drag lines any further and they’d snap. They, the rigging, the whole damned thing. With ‘em would go the whole trip.
Before Pate could argue, Lou shouted, “Keep course.”
The engines groaned, barely audible over the sea’s fury as the cabin door blew back on its hinges. Lou held it with both hands, let the ship rise and hurl him along gravity to shut it. Scatter-shot rain peppered the air from the billowing gales. He could only imagine how those sailors on tea-routes used to feel.
He shifted his weight, keeping close in-reach of anything he might need to brace on. Each step became a battle, a feat. He tug-o-war’d his way along, half-hanging or half-falling, half-slipping across slicked-wet deck. Each wave-crest was a nothing; each dipped swell, a moment of fearful hesitation when facing the encroaching nothingness before ship teetered over and he used or bore its momentum.
He reached the stern, more wet than any land-born creature before, shivering, freezing, and littered with microfriction-wounds from the salt on the air. He wrapped two hands around a hold, kicked a lock-lever. The sea lurched.
He rode the momentum to a panel, one arm hugged it, and cranked the nets in with a half-frozen hand. The crank-chains wrangled the nets top-side despite the sea’s furious protests, gaining only the slightest hint of power as they crossed the hull’s side.
A distant, warped whale-song reached Lou, mottled by spray and waves. It rang of something tragic, remniscent of frightened death. He craned for the cabin on instinct, expecting Pate to be cursing at him, saw nothing. Pate still-dutifully helmed the waves in spite of their violence.
Lou cursed himself for costing time. Already half-frozen, he needed every second that the ship lulled to secure the rigging before they altogether rose again, screaming.
With it came the distant cry, nearer this time. The sound was desperation. He’d have said a beached whale were there islands nearby. The sound was too small though, too distant yet too near. Above water. It forced a pause over Lou.
He strained his ears against wind, rain, his own breaths, poring over and through them until he heard nothing at all. He waited, zen.
He eased slowly back into action, heart infected by the lingering empathy its cry had pierced him with. He swung the crane about slowly, watchful and alert, wondering. He positioned the net, lowered it; one side went utterly slack, freed its contents.
Again the cry, like spears in the chest, heart, and mind. Prolonged. Near. Beside his skin.
The sound pierced Lou’ bones. It staggered him, knocked him to his knees long enough he was forced to pull himself up, around the cooler’s edge. Lou suddenly knew only of the utter calm the sea had taken on, as if watching, waiting, ready to strike if need be.
There, atop a mound of fish, lie the cry’s source.
Were Lou not so rigidly scientific, he’d have thought himself seeing things. Even then, the horrible, piercing wail of desperation would’ve convinced him otherwise. Its eyes could only have driven it home; however decidedly queer and foreign, they were sentient, intelligent– alive.
Empathic communication imparted their will on the air. Above all, its form was exhausted.
Equal parts lizard, fish, amphibian, and woman. She gleamed with scale-webbed hands barely clutching out and up. The slits lining the neck and nasal-passages choked on air beneath gleaming, terror-filled eyes.
He knew the look. It was the same slumped, fraught peril of soldiers too long at-battle, sailors too long and sea, knowing they could be forced through another fight, another league, another contest. Lou had seen himself time and again looking the same. Every creature exhibited it when pushed past their limits and somehow still going, doubly so if as terrified as she presently appeared.
It was but a moment before Lou grasped one of her arms. Pulled her into him. She helped, using what strength she could muster to fall into his arms and ease their burden. He hefted her in his arms, the calm now silent amid the rest of the chaos blowing just nearby.
She pointed, tired but lucidly, toward the sea. Lou understood. She’d been caught in the net, fought until nothing remained in her, was now drowning in air. The sea was judging his intentions.
He let instinct and duty urge him toward the ship’s edge, to a knee beside it. She managed a fish-like grimace, conveying both her species elegant ssence and her own gratitude. Then, with a light touch of his face, she let herself roll back into the sea.
Lou choked on nothingness, watching her ripples glide away in the ship’s wake, to be swallowed by the sea along with her. It once more began to swell; angry, but less so. He re-engaged his muscles and finished his work in stupefaction.
He returned to the cabin to find his partner and the sea tempered by one another. Pate said nothing, was simply quiet. Back on land, Lou told again and again what happened; No-one ever believed him.