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The Tinkered Mind
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March 21st, 2021
Lucilius glanced at the big brass compass in the binnacle and then looked back at his hands on the ships wheel. They felt frozen shut, wrapped around the wooden handles. He tilted the wheel to keep the ship on it’s dark course and the port and starboard tiller ropes pulled and gave through their deck holes before his boots. They were running dark on a moonless night, the exhausted crew commanded to be vigilant for an enemy they knew coursed through the same waters.
Lucilius looked back at the officer on watch. The boy, Lucilius’ junior by many years was passed out against brace lines held fast. Lucilius looked forward, wondering about his bow watch. He couldn’t see the other officer and wondered if that boy too was fast asleep.
Lucilius preferred the naval outfits. The merchant bloodboats were always more work, and you never knew what sort of conditions you were walking into. At least with the navy, he knew what he was signing up for. But of course it came with that ever present threat of battle. Friends were easily lost in business and service, but the loss was always harder when the battle was with blood instead of money. He was growing tired of the death, the mourning, of friends gone in certain and undecided ways.
He looked ahead again for his bow watch but still couldn’t see the officer. He knew he should wake up his watch officer and get eyes ahead, but something in him restrained, to let them just sleep a little more, Lucilius figured.
Then his body jolted with an electric heat that was freezing. Out ahead he could see it, the enemy ship, and the two were headed nearly straight for one another. Lucilius’ mouth hung open, slowing on an impulse to yell. Something held him back again. He could hear nothing, no commotion in the silent waters, both ships in the lightest of winds.
Silently, Lucilius just held the ship’s course, aghast at his inaction. He would be reprimanded, perhaps hanged for such gross incompetence, perhaps accused as a traitor. At any moment if anyone woke up and saw the ship so close they would know Lucilius’ silence had been deliberate. And yet still, he did nothing aside from watch the enemy ship grow larger ahead. It would pass just to starboard with both headings. The enemy ship was also running dark, ghostly squares hanging nearly limp as his own ships’ as they moved slowly toward one another.
The clear and curled sense of a feeling - just a hunch held Lucilius rapt in a dangerous curiosity. But the enemy ship was now close enough. They could have started firing to land clear shots by now. But perhaps they suspected the blindness of a tired crew and held back on a hair trigger impulse in order to get just a little closer, perhaps even to broadside Lucilius’ ship.
The fatal certainty of the situation grew with Lucilius’ horror. But in spite of it, he simply kept quiet and held the ship to its course. All was silent and stayed silent as Lucilius watched in awe as the enemy ship, looming large a few points from the bow came close. The ship was so close that Lucilius could see the gunport were closed, and as his heart raced, he suddenly picked out the sight of an officer on the enemy ship, slumped against a forestay, asleep.
The two massive ships silently glided past one another, and Lucilius watched the tall masts, their vast sails, mirroring one another, trading places like shifting forests. Lucilius’ eyes scanned the enemy deck, barely a stone’s toss from where he stood, and he picked out the watch officers passed out as it went, until finally his gaze met that of the helmsman.
The two locked one another’s stare as they grew closer, and as they finally came abreast, the ships now having all but passed each other, the helmsman aboard that enemy ship gently nodded at Lucilius, and Lucilius in kind nodded back. Then both turned back to their task and held their course.