Captain Stay, Captain Go
The ship lurches and I awake. The sunlit spot from the crew-berth's only port is crawling across the empty hammocks, bedbugs glinting like dust-motes. We are turning. As I stumble out of bed and dress myself I hear shouting from up on deck.
The sky is red. Mr. Valley stands at the helm behind a line of crewmen holding blades, before them the captain on his knees. "We are too far to turn back," Captain Stay laments, his words slurred and whiny. He spindles the front of his shirt pointlessly as he blubbers, "We will die before we reach home!"
"We are dying now," says Mr. Valley softly, eyes locked on Captain Stay.
"Tell them!" yells the captain raggedly, gesturing imploringly at Onion War who is crouching beside the two terrified mathematicians. One has wrapped her own chains around her forearms as if to use the links as a shield. They quiver and hide behind his dreadlocks, their bleary eyes wide.
Onion War turns to Mr. Valley wearily. "It is true, sir. The Empire is too far. Even the Second Continent is beyond the reach of our stores now."
"It is an unholy quest we are on," replies Mr. Valley with calm precision, enunciating each word with characteristic eastern lilt. "It will end today, at my word or blade or the will of the magic, so help me saints."
The deaf magician squints at Mr. Valley's lips and nods, sucking his teeth loudly.
"It is natural to be afraid," says Onion War. "But still we must press on. Exploration requires faith."
Mr. Valley blinks. "Do not presume to instruct me on faith," he replies. "I breathe with the magic, and the magic breathes through me."
"Do you believe we will come to the world's end?" challenges Onion War. (I hold my breath, startled. Can he not see their blades? Can he not smell the seething vitriol?)
Mr. Valley considers this for a moment, his eyes still fixed on the pool of captain on the steps up to the helm. "The world may not have a literal edge," he concedes, licking his thin lips. "The world may go on forever, for all I know. But I do know that the pursuit of this mythical Third Continent will kill every last one of us, and so damned is the commander who would see it through."
"Damned is the commander!" chants the crew, as if rehearsed. The magician sucks his teeth.
Captain Stay groans and sinks lower into his own capes. In the fine, rosy light of dawn I am able to actually see his sweat-glistening skin pimple in gooseflesh -- I witness the moment of defeat finding him. He does not resist when escorted back to his cabin, and speaks only to beg for a bottle of wine as the companionway is shackled shut.
I notice a seabird. And then another.
Onion War points to the horizon: the tops of grey-bellied cumulus clouds reach up like giant thumbs from a point off the port-bow. "Land," he reports tonelessly.
Mr. Valley whispers to the magic and then barks orders at the crew. When they obey they call him "captain." I am commanded to help bring about the foresail and I hop to my duty. I call him "captain" too.
The crew is cheerful. My hands are burned hauling on the ropes, but it fells great to be a part of the team. The men sing and the seabirds do too, almost loud enough to drown out the magician's awful hymning. For the first time ever, Mr. Valley is really smiling. His teeth are startlingly white and even.
Onion War stands alone by the pilot, his lined face drawn tight.