Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Rip Tide

by James Neale




Hiram Croft lay in a low crouch, clinging to his dragons harness as a cold wind tried to prise him from his seat. His dragons name was Paradox and they were currently diving through a cloud bank heading for a small schooner which was tacking through the choppy sea below them.

Hiram felt Paradox take in a huge breath, the scales under his harness shifted to accommodate the swelling lungs trapped within. With a roar Paradox exhaled. The breath trapped within emerged in a jet of super hot flame. Where the flame touched the universe ripped, and through the rip plunged Paradox with Hiram clinging to his back. In seconds they had travelled through the rip back in time hundreds of years and thousands of miles. Below them men were fighting, struggling and killing each other.

Hiram sent a thought to Paradox, There to the left. He's what we are looking for. Paradox responded flying straight for the samurai who stood alone atop a small hill surrounded by dead bodies.

Paradox stretched into a glide as he approached the lone samurai. The armored warrior looked up at the last second just as Paradox ripped a hole in time right into the hillside below the warrior. The rip swallowed the stunned warrior, followed seconds later by Paradox and Hiram.

The rip deposited the samurai onto the deck of the ship with an audible clatter. The samurai took less than as second to regain his feet and balance, despite the disorienting fall. The long straight sword he carried came up into a high guard whilst above him Paradox banked hard to avoid colliding with the ship.

The half score of pirates who formed the schooners felonious crew looked on stunned for a second at the man who had fallen from the sky to land on their timber world. The pirates reacted the only way they knew how, violently.

In amongst the swarm of screaming pirates the samurai fought calmly using short economical slashes of his blade, leaving pirates dead or dying with each move he made. The samurai's graceful economy was a stark contrast to the brutal hacking swings of the pirates which seemed unable to hit the foreign warrior as he pivoted on the spot always remaining on balance.

Circling above, Hiram watched in awe as the pirates fell, one after another. The business-like efficiency of the samurai was breathtaking, and within seconds it was over. The samurai half crouched, wary, seeking more opponents even as he flicked drops of his last opponent's blood from his sword blade.

Whilst he was distracted Paradox swooped in, blazing breath ripping a path back home for the calm oriental warrior.

* * *

Once back in Japan after the battle for Suruga province the warrior never told anyone of the battle within a battle he had fought against a host of pale demons on a wooden island whilst watched by a great lizard. He doubted he would be believed, but he did develop the curious battle habit of watching not only the land for threats but the sky.

* * *

Back on the now-deserted Schooner Hiram began the unpleasant task of dragging the eviscerated pirates to the edge of the ship before tipping them into the sea. He ignored the blood that dripped from his arms and focused on the task, trying not to feel sympathy for the men who had been killed.

With the deceased pirates slowly drifting away Hiram began jettisoning the surprisingly sparse foodstuffs he found on board. Once he had finished he called out to paradox's mind, the time dragon responded, bearing him from the heat of the dead ship to the cool sky. The last task Hiram had was to direct Paradox six months into the future to the start of the change in seasons. There they ripped a path for a small storm . The storm rolled out of the time rip directly astern of the lifeless ship, its rains washing the gore from the deck whilst its winds drove the hull towards a point some way between the island of Jamaica and Bermuda.

* * *

The cargo ship Mary Jane was making good progress. Jem knew this without reading the charts. He was pretending to read the charts but in reality he was watching the Forecaster out of the corner of his eye. Jem knew that this Forecaster was called Julian De Cheko as he had introduced himself to the whole crew at the start of the voyage. He had not bothered to introduce any of the four lumbering men accompanying him their threat was obvious, they were his bodyguard.

De Cheko was an unremarkable looking man, unremarkable if you did not know that beneath the sensible black suit and the not so sensible black leather shoes, there lay a remarkable mind that could analyze probable outcomes with an ease with which most people thought about breathing.

De Cheko was currently stood with one of his body guard. He stood, ram rod straight, next to the stern rail, gazing with disinterest at the activity going on around him.

De Cheko was a middle-ranking member of an elite society know to most people as the Forecasters. The society controlled every aspect of life with a cold brutality which kept everyone except the Forecasters bound in place, living only to ensure that the Forecasters continued in their privileged lives.

Forecasters were selected at the age of eight. Only the most promising minds were chosen. From that point on they were intensively trained in observation and analysis processes. Their training made them valuable and interesting but what made the dangerous was their monopoly on their most closely guarded resource, chrono glass. Jem did not know much about where or how chrono glass was formed but he knew what it did. It showed any one who looked thorough it the immediate future of whatever that person was looking at. When this knowledge was fed into the mind of a Forecaster the Forecaster could tell exactly what would happen around them. The skill that really set them apart and disgusted Jem was that Forecasters could influence other men's minds. True they could not take control of a man and make him a puppet but they could influence him and make him carry out any action that they would not normally consider. They could not make a man jump off a cliff if he did not want to but they could if the man was considering it. It was true that the time dragon riders spoke mind to mind with their dragon but they did not interfere with a man's thoughts and it was the thought of that skill that particularly turned Jems stomach. With the ability to see the immediate future and make changes to adjust it as they went so that the future developed as they wanted they were fearsome opponents indeed, most people had stopped trying to resist them long ago.

De Cheko's chrono glass had been fashioned into a monocle. As Jem surreptitiously watched him, De Cheko's head snapped up. "Second mate," he said without looking at Jem.

"Sir?" replied Jem.

"That foot rope is loose," said De Cheko as he pointed at a rope hanging below a yard arm.

Jem squinted at the rope before venturing, "It looks secure to me, sir."

De Cheko sighed and resumed ignoring Jem. Thirty seconds later two sailors approached the yard arm in question. The first sailor shimmied along the foot rope easily, before swinging himself onto the yard arm itself sitting securely on it as he worked. The second sailor also made to move along the yard arm when two things happened at once. The first was that the foot rope came away from its fastening and the sailor began to fall. The second was that De Cheko gave a sharp exhale of breath and the sailor on the yard arm moved faster than anyone Jem had ever seen, catching the falling sailor even as he slipped. Other sailors quickly made to the yardarm and helped the shaking sailors down, congratulating the catcher on his speed, although he looked almost as shocked as the man who had fallen.

De Cheko span on his heel and walked back to the stern rail without looking at Jem, his point made.

Jem was pleased that no one was hurt but he knew that few of the acts of the Forecasters were as benevolent as that which he had just witnessed. It made it worse really he thought, the forecasters chose to keep their powers for selfish ends.

Jem had another reason for watching De Cheko so closely. Jem was not only on board as second mate, he was also a Brother of Time. A member a secret society dedicated to guarding and fostering the time dragons and working to eliminate the Forecasters.

Jems mission, along with four other members of the crew, was to smuggle one of their rare dragons eggs onto a small uncharted island which lay not far off their current course and care for it until it hatched.

The reason that the island was not on any chart was also the reason why De Cheko was on board. The island lay on an intersection of two lay lines, folds in the fabric of time. These folds in time were dense anchors of time and the brotherhood believed that they were linked somehow to the Forecasters abilities. The hope was that birthing a time dragon, with all the time distortions that that entailed, on one of the intersections would damage their abilities to produce chrono glass and weaken them, but nobody knew for sure as it had never been done. De Cheko was there to guard the location of the island and any ship which sailed in these waters had a Forecaster escort.

The dragon egg in question was currently hidden in the hold. The egg was immensely valuable as only a handful were laid each generation. The brotherhood had been divided as to whether the risk of such a valuable asset was worth the risk for such an unknown result. After months of debate and argument grudging authority to try it was given.

Jem knew that somewhere in the sky's above Hiram and Paradox were creating the opportunity they needed to leave this ship and get to the island.

The opportunity that Jem had been waiting for came on an errant wind. All the sailors knew the wind directions in these waters, and all knew that there should have been no wind from the east. Even more frightening was that this unseasonal wind was blowing a deserted hulk before it.

The captains greed overcame his superstition and he after De Cheko had given his consent they heaved to, before intercepting the hulk.

When they had lashed the two ships together the unease grew. It was clear that the ship was deserted but it was also still eminently sea worthy. Where were the crew? Why had the abandoned a sound ship? Again the captains desire for a salvage fee overrode his misgivings. The suspicion around the ship made it easy for for Jem to volunteer to lead the prize crew. He was able to handpick his crew from the ship as he had handpicked them for the mission back on land. Alexander, a boatswain with an agile mind; Wesley, a slim and mostly-reformed thief; hulking Bernard; and Peter, an able seaman and general nasty piece of work with a short blade.

It would have been too much to hope for, thought Jem, that they would be allowed to sail merrily away. De Cheko had looked at the derelict for a long time. Jem knew that Chrono glass could not see into the future for more than a minute but he also knew that the ship presented De Cheko with a problem. There were now two ships and only one Forecaster. This was one of the Forecasters most hated problems--a choice where they did not already know what the answer would be.

For a second Jem thought De Cheko was going to forbid the captain from crewing the ship but instead De Cheko declared that he would sail with the prize crew and leave two of his body guard on board the Mary Jane to ensure that they did not stray from their course.

Jem tasked Wesley with smuggling the dragons egg on board the derelict in amongst the supplies that were to be loaded. Jem knew Wesley's light-fingered past had given him skills which included smuggling items from one place to another without attracting notice.

De Cheko and his men watched the preparations intently but as nothing suspicious was planned in the next few minutes Jem was happy that the Forecasters monocle was useless.

It was not long before the derelict, which had Spicer written across her stern, cast off. The Spicer had become a living ship again.

Jem set the small crew to repairing the Spicer. The ship had suffered in its storm driven voyage and the maintenance that the pirate crew had carried out had been lackluster at best.

De Cheko approached Jem shortly after they had cast off from the Mary Jane. "Captain," he gave the title an inflection which made the word sound like <i>'Slave.'</i> "I expect you to follow in the wake of the Mary Jane. I don't want any variation from our scheduled course."

Jem wondered if he was suspicious or just unhappy about this step outside predictability. "Aye-aye, sir," he responded looking De Cheko in the eyes. The eye with the monacle in looked huge in comparison to De Chekos other eye and Jem could not help but wonder what De Cheko was seeing . De Cheko exhaled sharply before turning and walking back to the stern followed by his body guard.

Jem had hoped that De Cheko might choose the comfort of the Mary Jane and simply send his body guard with the Spicer. There was a very real risk of failure now that De Cheko was with them. Paradox and Hiram could only be of limited use as well. Intelligent thought the dragons were they were still subject to their natural instincts which sent them into an aggressive frenzy in the presence of any egg that they had not laid or sired. This meant that Paradox could not come too close to the ship for fear of destroying it and its valuable cargo.

Jem had sat for hours with his superiors, and his second in command Alexander discussing what to do should this happen. They had concocted a last chance desperate idea but it was far from a sure thing and it came with great risks. Many men had died trying to kill a Forecaster. Those who did not fully understand how the chrono glass worked often tried to blank their minds and then attacked randomly as any chance presented itself. It never worked. The Forecaster would see your attack coming well ahead, you did not even need to know what you were going to do it would still happen and the Forecaster would see it regardless of the fact that it was not premeditated.

Ambushes failed as the Forecaster would have advanced warning of it being sprung and could avoid, escape or counter it. Even sending dozens of men against them often failed as they knew where and when every attack would go and they could evade and counter attack as if they were possessed by some godly warrior spirit. Only the years of practice at analyzing so much detailed information enabled them to survive such attacks but they had done it time and again as people had tried to throw off the yoke that they had placed over human kind.

Peter and Bernard had been chosen due to their ability to fight their way out of a tight corner. You did not need chrono glass to predict what Bernard would do but stopping his immense strength was another matter. Peter was fast with a blade although Jem knew that fast did not count if you knew exactly where and when the strike was coming.

When he was satisfied that the Spicer was in a safe state he nominated a watch order so that everyone could get some rest, he knew that in all likelihood in the morning they would need it. Jem took the helm himself, he dare not try anything until darkness fell so he set his mind to the task at hand and waited.

Darkness fell, or rather the light faded but the light from the moon bathed the sea and ship in a pearly half light. Jem ordered more lights than usual lit about the ship. He hoped that they would ruin De Cheko and his men's night vision.

The Mary Jane had been pulling away all day, her larger sails and better maintained hull had begun to tell and Jem's cautious use of the sails and deliberate wind wasting course adjustments had ensured that the Spicer had steadily fallen behind, now the stern light of the Mary Jane was barely visible.

Jem judged it time. He made an almost imperceptible course adjustment whilst nodding at Peter who began adjusting the sail quietly and without fuss. Before the voyage had begun they had all memorized the coordinates that they were heading for but Jem did not want any of the others to shoulder the burden of steering the ship. De Cheko must not notice until it was too late.

* * *

All went well for most of the night. Whether it was Jem's smooth steering or De Cheko's inexperience at sea that made it so, Jem did not know. He did know that a night without sleep and constantly being on edge through fear of being discovered had left him shattered. As dawn began to announce its impending presence it was almost a relief to see De Cheko striding towards him.

"Where is the Mary Jane?" De Cheko asked, looking carefully along the rose hue band that parted the sea from the dark sky above. "She pulled away from us even more during the night, sir," answered Jem.

De Cheko looked at the wind tell and frowned, he walked over to the chart table. Jems stomach roiled with fear as he prayed that De Cheko was only pretending that he could read the charts.

"Guards!" snapped De Cheko. The two men came running, one carrying a naked heavy cutlass, the other clutched a foot long dirk in his right hand whilst his left held a small circular buckler. As they pounded over the deck to de Chekos side, Jem's own men all stopped what they were doing and formed up around Jem.

"She's a lot faster than us is all, sir," tried Jem, knowing that there was little hope of the ruse working.

De Cheko ignored him, he was slowly circling whilst looking around himself taking in details present and future as he turned. De Cheko came back to face Jem, he looked at the back of this guard with the cutlass and frowned. Suddenly the cutlass was swung through the air catching Wesley high on the head, he dropped to the deck even as the guard brought his weapon back. The guard looked as stunned as Jem was by what he had done but he maintained his solid stance. De Checko looked on unsurprised for a second before his head swiveled to the right.

"Time dragon," he warned his men. "Foolish," he spat at Jem and his remaining men. De Cheko's manner was angry but not in the least bit frightened. Jem wished he felt the same.

Bernard grunted as he swung a capstan bar at the guard with the buckler. Jem doubted that De Cheko bothered influencing his man who wisely chose to duck the blow rather than block it with his shield.

Jem looked skyward relieved to see the unmistakable shape of a dragon descending through the wispy cloud above.

* * *

Paradox's superior eyes could clearly see what was happening on the tiny timber deck below and this knowledge was passed from mind to mind. Hiram sighed knowing that the situation was bleak. He agreed a date and location with Paradox who ripped a hole in time, plunging through the rip back to Crecy 1346.

* * *

Jem was getting more worried by the second. He had seen Paradox vanish into the rip and he knew that an attack was coming, so must De Cheko who was looking unconcerned. De Cheko actually sauntered over to a new spot on the deck before saying "Back to me."

As Jem watched a bass roar and hiss shattered the tense silence on board the ship, Paradox emerged from a new rip above the ship and banked hard to avoid coming too close. Suddenly a narrow strip of the deck erupted in splinters as a flight of longbow arrows slammed into the deck where De Cheko and his men had been just seconds before.

De Cheko bowed slightly towards Jem before ordering "Four paces forward!" to his men who closed on Jem and his waiting men. "Down," said De Cheko just before another rip opened to starboard of the Spicer and amid a billow of smoke Paradox emerged, climbing hard. Just ahead of him roared a cannon load of grape shot which, instead of cutting down Spanish sailors as the cannons gunners had originally intended, destroyed the starboard ships rail but passed harmlessly over the top of De Chekos prone guards.

Jem knew that the best chance had been lost, defeated by De Chekos abilities. He tried to seize some advantage by charging as the guards scrambled to their feet, but as he came upon the dirk wielder he found both guards stood in steady stances shoulder to shoulder ready to meet Jem and his men.

The fight was brutal but Jem could see that however skillfully he and his men attacked the guards De Cheko ensured that the guard reacted to avoid or block the attacks. Jem marvelled at De Cheko's ability to read the attacks of four men and direct two others as he did so. Then the wonder turned to dread as Bernard went down to a slash to the thigh from the cutlass wielder.

Jem hoped that Paradox was arranging the attack that they had agreed upon before the mission had started. This time the ear splitting noise of Paradox leaving the rent was not followed by a stolen munition from a battle occurring at another point along the river of time. This time the rip leaked steady billow of thick grey fog which rolled out of the rip and along the sea towards the ship like a grey wave. As the ship was enveloped Jem smelt the acrid tang of coal smoke mixed into the dark cloud as his vision was obscured.

Jem and his two remaining men redoubled their efforts against the guards who were now without their super human insight, De Chekos future vision fogged along with his normal sight. Peter killed the dirk and buckler man with a dagger thrust that his opponent never saw coming. The fog seemed to cluster even more densely around the knife wielding sailor as if it appreciated a sacrifice being made.

The cutlass wielder fell to the less well practiced thrusts of Jem and Wesley. As he fell the dying guard managed a final cut which gashed Jem across the forearm causing him to lose his grip on his own weapon.

Jem clutched his bleeding arm tightly, curiously he felt more vibrant and alive than he had done all voyage. "Peter, Wesley slow and careful, he'll be armed." Neither man acknowledged Jem's comments but both men crept forward in a half crouch breathing as quietly as they could, seeking any stray sound which would lead them to De Cheko.

Jem knew that De Cheko would still be able to see into the future but he hoped the fog would make knowing where the attack would come from difficult, he hoped that all De Cheko could see was death coming.

Both Peter and Wesley had opted to move forward together but it was Wesley keen senses, use to creeping around in the dark, which located De Cheko. The Forecaster was scuffing the deck with his unserviceable shoes as he span in circles slashing ineffectually through the fog with a dagger. A small grunt escaped his lips as he spun and slashed faster. In the end it was Peters speed and accuracy that did the deed. De Chekos monocle smashed as it hit the deck moments before De Chekos body did. "It's done!" shouted Peter.

"Bernard?" shouted Jem who followed Bernard's shouts and curses until he found him and begun to help bandage Bernard's wound before seeing to his own injury which did not seem too bad. Suddenly, Jem was shaking and he had to sit down. They had done it.

With time the fog, which seemed reluctant to leave the carnage of the ship, faded away.

* * *

High above Paradox could see the survivors moving sluggishly around the ship. After a time Hiram asked Paradox to rip a hole, bringing in a brisk wind to speed the ship onward to its goal. Hiram hoped that all the bloodshed was worth it.

Only time would tell.

THE END


2013 James Neale

Bio: Mr. Neal is a previously unpublished writer who enjoys the fact that day dreaming is not a waste of time if you can then write a story around it when you get home.

E-mail: James Neale

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