At The End Of The World – Snippet 05

June 15

I spent a lot of time in the pilot house today, charting a new course. Originally, we were supposed to stop at Valparaiso for fresh water, which would have been pretty tight by the time we got to South Georgia Island. But the captain had refurbished the Voyager‘s condensers only a few months earlier, and they were keeping up with the demand, so the captain decided to make straight for the Cape of Good Hope. Leaving me with the job of plotting our approach to Tierra del Fuego.

My head was so deep in the maps and numbers that I just about jumped out of my skin when a voice behind me said, “We need another navigator.” It was the Ghoul himself. 

“Yes, . . . I mean aye, um, I mean aye aye, captain,” I said. When I look at that on paper, it only reads half as stupid as it sounded.

“You’ll be doing the teaching.”

“Me?” I don’t think my voice has broken that way since I was thirteen. “But I hardly know how to navigate, myself!”

Already halfway out the door to the weather deck, he turned back. “Tell me,” he said quietly, “what’s a rhumb line?”

“A line on the surface of the earth making the same oblique angle with all meridians,” I snapped back at him. I figured this was some sort of test, and I wanted to make up for sounding stupid and having my voice break. For the first time in my life, I cared about somebody’s opinion of me other than my mom.

He nodded. “And what’s the solstitial colure?”

“The great circle of the celestial sphere where the sun passes through the celestial poles and the solstices.”

“And swirl error?”

“The additional error in the reading of a magnetic compass during a turn, due to friction in the compass liquid.” I could do this all day.

The captain stared at me through narrowed eyes. “And what’s the third topic heading in the sixth chapter of Knight’s Seamanship?” he asked me.

“Which edition, sir?” There were two on board.

“The old one.” He stopped to think. “Tenth edition.”

That seemed like a pretty arbitrary piece of information, but I knew it. “‘The Azimuth Circle.'”

He looked at me. “So you say you don’t know how to be a navigator.”

“Well,” I explained, “I mean, I can do it a little. But most of that is just book learning, and I –“

“Bollocks, boy.” I think that may have been the first time he ever interrupted me. “You’ve been charting courses without any help for three days. And you didn’t need my help for the four days before that. I’ve never seen anyone learn these principles so quickly. But then, you get on pretty well with books, don’t you?”

I felt my face get hot. “Pretty well,” I admitted.

The left side of his mouth twitched in what might have been, for him, a broad shit-eating grin. “Pretty well, indeed. I’ll wager that if I asked you to give me a few entries on the celestial navigation tables, you could do that sitting right there, without cracking the cover.” He stared at me. “Couldn’t you?”

“Maybe,” I lied.

He leaned forward. “No, you could. And I know it. And we don’t have the time or the freedom for this kind of faffing about. The plain fact is that you have a photographic memory. Oh, you’re sharp enough as well, I warrant. But see here: a captain must know all the assets at his disposal, all of the resources upon which he can count. So when were you going to do the right thing and let me know about this little skill of yours?”

I shrugged. “Hadn’t thought about it really, sir.” And it was true. School is bad enough when you’re the pint-sized outsider who’s always getting the best grades. God knows how much worse it would have been if they’d known I was some kind of freak who remembered everything he saw and heard. Without really trying.

The captain must have seen some of that old dread flash past in my eyes. He leaned back. “Right, then. I can see it might not have always been a skill you were glad to have. But now, we could have need of it. These are treacherous waters.” He looked away. “And this can be a dangerous world.” He paused, as though he intended to add something, but instead got up and left. Like he was in a hurry.

It’s the first time the captain ever said or did anything that struck me as evasive. And suddenly, for reasons that I cannot fully identify, I am now terrified. If something gives the Great Ghoul of the Ocean-Sea even a moment’s pause, I figure that it has to pretty damned serious.

Like Armageddon. Or worse.

June 16

“So,” the captain resumed the next day in the pilot house, like we’d never stopped talking. “Resources. There are only two people on Voyager who can navigate her. That’s not enough. So you’re going to start training another one today.”

I had thought about it since yesterday. It didn’t sound so bad, particularly not if it was somebody like Rodney or Giselle. They had pretty good heads on their shoulders, even if the brains inside didn’t always work to get them the best social outcomes. “Sure,” I replied. “Actually, I think that either Rodney or Giselle would –“

“I asked you to train a navigator, not recruit one. I’ve already done that.” He called down the companionway. “Come up here.” It sounded like he was talking to a misbehaving pet.

He moved out of the way so that the new navigator-in-training could get up the stairs and past him. It was Chloe.

I looked at him. And this time he really did grin a little. “Have fun you two,” he said. And left.

Chloe looked at me and I looked at her. We did that for a while. Strangely enough, she was the first one to look away.

“Look,” I said in a low voice, “do you have any idea why he –?”

“You’re asking me?” she said, turning to glare at me. “You’re his Golden Boy. You’d know, if anyone.”

The notion of being the Great Ghoul’s Golden Boy left me speechless for a few seconds. Then: “Well, if I’m his favorite, he has a damn strange way of showing it. I didn’t know he even wanted another navigator, much less expected me to train one. And I can assure you, if he’d given me a choice of who –” I heard myself and stopped.

Too late.

She turned toward me. “The only thing worse than having you teach me is having you near me. So, let’s start with some ground rules. You stay on the opposite side of this chart table. Maybe that way I won’t puke.”

I should have been able to shrug that off, to just smile, lean back, and say, “Whatever. Let’s get to work.”  But no. Instead, I blurted out the first response that came to mind, a tit-for-tat reflex. “Of all the things you need to worry about, me wanting to get close to you is not remotely among them.”

She wasn’t out of grade-school ammunition yet. “Why? Because you’re afraid I might pick you up and break you?”

“No, because you’re a nasty, selfish bitch, and I wouldn’t get with you if you were the last female on earth.”

Yes, I went there. And yes, I was totally in the wrong. And what had come out of my mouth shocked me speechless.

Her, too. For a moment I thought the odds were even that she was either going to cry or scream. However, I could see that the odds were much better than either that she was going to smack my face — and I wouldn’t have stopped her even if I could have.

But she stopped herself. I don’t know if it was a memory of what happened the last time she tried coming after me, her fear of the Great Ghoul, or some still vulnerable part of her that my retort had hit, punctured, and sunk. For a moment, it looked like she might fold in on herself, but then her jaw came forward and locked in place. “Right,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”