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Tell him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
Then he shall be a true love of mine.
Traditional English ballad
Prologue: The Story Thus Far
Almost a hundred years have passed since Hydra first rose from the abyss and began their conquest of the three great oceans. One by one, the empires of the Marmeni were corrupted from within by agents of this terrible organization, and brought to submission by its absolute power.
After the fall of Delfia, the last free nation beneath the sea, a contingent of Delfin officials broke the chiefest law governing all seafolk and reached out to the world of man. Humans, who had only just begun to venture into the skies and seas in a period of industrial renaissance, were astounded and elated to learn that they were not alone in the world. An instant alliance was formed between mankind and Delfins. Leaders from all five continents forgot their existing conflicts with each other and united to help their new neighbors.
However, Hydra quickly learned of this unprecedented contact and decided to make an example of the Delfi, slaughtering over three-quarters of them in the ensuing genocide. Only the very young were spared, destined for assimilation as soldiers in Hydra’s growing army. The surviving races, seeing what had happened to those who retaliated, either sided with Hydra or were terrified into oppression.
Disturbed by the sudden silence from their allies and fearing the worst, the kingdoms of men formed a counter-organization known as Sovereign Against International Nautical Tyranny, and awaited further contact from the Delfi.
None came. Fleets of SAINT ships set sail from every port, searching for answers. Thousands of iron plaques carved with messages were tossed into the waves in hopes they would somehow reach the Marmeni and elicit a response.
There has been twenty-five years of silence—until now.
Exasperated by the persistence of the meddling humans, Hydra has begun sending their soldiers out of the deep to attack these goodwill ships, sabotaging them, sinking them, and leaving none alive.
The crew of the Americus, under the command of Captain Steve Rogers, caught one such saboteur and dragged him aboard for questioning.
Chapter 1: The Captive
“Heads up, Hawk!” Wilson shouted, but his words came too late. Barton, the ship’s gunner, was struck broadside by the powerful gray tail and sent skidding backward across the deck until the mizzenmast halted his journey. He groaned and cradled his aching ribs. Three sailors took his place, armed with pike poles, and jumped into the fray.
Blows rained down upon the Marmen’s back, arms, and tail; the small iron hooks slashed and stabbed his flesh, but he seemed oblivious to the pain, reeling upon his attackers and catching their poles as they descended, snapping them like twigs. Smears of blood painted the deck, appearing black in the dingy, flickering light of the torches.
The creature—no one could say for sure what he was, probably Carcarian, judging by his ferocity—fought with the strength of ten men, even trapped under heavy fishing net as he was. Whatever grace he might have had in the water was transformed here into savage, frenzied energy—biting, punching, pummeling, thrashing any man who stood against him. He was astoundingly fast, utterly silent. Another assassin, most likely. That would be the fourth in as many months.
We must be getting close, Wilson thought, and dodged left as the Marmen flung the net off. It landed on two nearby sailors, consequently tangling them. The crew widened its circle around their quarry and watched him pant for breath in this thin new atmosphere. His torso, lean and muscular, was strapped all over with a kind of black leather, and it was from this array of belts that he produced a pair of small white knives, flipping them menacingly. Pale eyes flicked back and forth from behind locks of dark hair as he crouched on the deck, tail folded to propel himself at the next threat.
Dugan, the second mate, limped to Wilson’s side. “What now, sir?” he whispered.
The helmsman, Morita, stepped up beside Dugan. He had a handkerchief pressed to the bleeding, broken nose he had earlier received from their guest. “I don’t know which end is worse. The man end or the fish end.”
Dugan snorted. “What do you want us to do, Jim? Flip a coin?”
“Sure. Heads, you fight ‘em, tails, I watch.”
“That’s enough,” Wilson snapped, and locked eyes with their enemy. “Captain Rogers’s orders are to keep prisoners alive and on board. And we need to figure out how to do that before we all get our asses ironically kicked by the Legless Wonder here.”
Dugan and Morita exchanged a weary look.
“Now, I’ve got an idea, but we’ll have to—”
The Marmen suddenly sprang up, tackled Dernier, and leaped toward the larboard bulwark. Toward open sea.
“—jump him!” Wilson shouted, and every able-bodied man aboard pitched himself onto the would-be escapee. He went down hard, lurching and bucking, but presently the men managed to subdue him. Dugan and Jones sat themselves squarely upon his upper body while Dernier, Wilson, and two other sailors pinned down the tail. The Marmen clawed and scrabbled to get free, but he was no match for the immobilizing weight of six grown men, nor the dozen seamen aiding them.
That didn’t stop him from fighting, though.
“Someone get a rope!” cried Wilson, desperately trying to pin down the energetic flukes. They were flat, he realized. Not vertical, like a Carcarin’s. And he lacked a dorsal fin. “Shit. He’s Delfin.”
“He’s an agent of Hydra, sir,” said Dugan, pointing to the familiar red tattoo on the captive’s shoulder. “He’s our enemy, no matter what race he is.”
“I know that, Dum Dum, but the Delfi are our allies and we can’t just”—his grip failed and the flukes slapped him squarely in the face—“where in the hell is that rope!”
Barton, having recovered his wind from earlier, crouched down in front of Wilson with a heavy coil in his hands.
“Sling hitch and a butterfly loop,” Wilson puffed. “Can you do those?”
“No problem,” said Barton, and quickly began to make the requested knots. “How big do you want the hitch?”
“Big enough to fit around this.” Wilson nodded to the writhing tail. “Hurry, we can’t hold this guy for long!”
“And the butterfly?”
“Better make two. Put ‘em eighteen inches down from the hitch. Cut the slack, we’ll use it to tie his hands. Fletcher! Pinkerton! Rig up the block and tackle!”
“Aw, hell,” Jones muttered. “He ain’t gonna like this.”
“I know, but how else are we going to restrain him?”
“No, sir. I mean the Captain.”
“Captain Rogers will understand,” said Wilson, then added under his breath: “I think.”
In a few short minutes the rope was secured to the Delfin’s tail and attached to the block’s hook. The prisoner struggled and writhed the entire time. Not a single audible sound escaped his lips, though his mouth moved as if he were attempting to speak. Only when Wilson counted to three and the men jumped clear did the Delfin finally produce sound: a dry, airy scream as the block was raised, hauling him into the air. It ended abruptly in a fit of coughing.
For a while the prisoner swung and wriggled in a helpless welter; he tried to chew through his bonds and fold himself up high enough to reach the hook, failing in both attempts. At last he surrendered and seemed to accept his fate. The ropes, tightened by his previous efforts, now bit into his flukes, pinching them and making them bleed. The only enemies he faced now were time and his own weight—and the former was entirely predicated upon his endurance of the latter. Pain and ferocious resentment was apparent on his features; this situation was surely as excruciating as it was humbling.
A lull fell over the deck of the Americus, all hands watching the wounded Delfin dangle, wrists bound and upside-down, above the deck like a landed sportfish. It was a disquieting spectacle for a crew sent on a mission of aid and mercy—particularly for Helen Cho, the ship’s surgeon and a self-professed lover of all things sea-born. She emerged from the forecastle and approached the first mate, having witnessed all that had occurred.
“He can’t stay like that for long,” she told Wilson softly. “We have no idea how our atmosphere might be affecting his body. It could be poisoning him.”
“We’ll take him down as soon as Captain Rogers returns.”
“What if he dies before then, Sam?”
“He won’t. I’ll set up a watch. If he blacks out, we’ll let him down.”
“He’s bleeding—look at those punctures and lacerations. Some of them are serious. You should let me treat him.”
“He’ll kill you if you get within arm’s reach of him, Doc. You’re better to wait until he gets a little more respectful.”
“The blood is rushing to his head right now,” she persisted. “His brain could hemorrhage and then he won’t be able to tell you anythi—”
Wilson turned and arrested her with a sharp look. “He stays as he is until the captain returns or he passes out. He will not be treated or coddled or keel-hauled unless by Captain’s orders. That is my decision. You don’t have to like it, but as long as I am acting commander of this vessel, you will obey it.”
Cho pinched her lips into a hard line and nodded her acknowledgement. “Alright. I’ll be belowdecks if you need me, sir,” she said flatly. “Please alert me when he dies, I’d love to be the first person in the world to do a postmortem on a Marmen.”
She left Wilson standing alone, massaging his forehead tiredly. What he had been unable to say was that he shared all of Cho’s concerns, though there was little he could do about them. This was the only way to get the situation under control. Hopefully it wouldn’t damage relations between humans and the Delfi, if any more of them were to be found.
“Mr Morita, Mr Jones. Take first watch,” said Wilson, sparing one last glimpse at the grim sight of the hanging Hydra operative. “If anything—and I do mean anything—happens, if he falls asleep, if he starts puking blood, if he busts out singin Roll, Me Hearties, you call for me, aye?”
“Aye, sir,” they said.
“And make sure Fletcher keeps those lanterns lit. We don’t want our captain getting lost out there.”
The longboat carrying Captain Steve Rogers and the ship’s navigator, Montgomery, returned to the Americus in the thin hours just before dawn. The eastern sky was fading to a pale blue where it met the sea, glassy and calm, when they climbed aboard. First mate Wilson greeted them and gave them a hand up.
“Welcome back, sirs,” he said. “Any luck?”
Captain Rogers sighed, his broad shoulders slumping slightly. Montgomery looked similarly dejected.
“None,” said Rogers. “We followed the algae trail but it faded about four miles nor-nor-east. We waited for contact, but no luck. Either we’ve mistaken a natural phenomenon for a message or we’re not finding the trails in time. If only there was a way we could see the algae in daylight . . .” He trailed off and looked aftward, over Wilson’s shoulder. “What is that?”
“A member of Hydra’s welcoming committee,” he explained, leading the captain amidships. “We caught him after he dismantled the rudder and carved fourteen holes in the stern. Mr Lang and his men have been busy with repairs all ni—”
“Why is he tied up like that?”
“No other way, sir. He was beating the hell out of us.”
A few members of the crew paused what they were doing and watched Captain Rogers approach the still-hanging Delfin, who had been motionless now for hours. He still breathed, though his neck and face were flushed with blood and he hadn’t opened his eyes in a while. Apparently he was sleeping. Rogers stepped close and touched the red mark of Hydra—a skull sitting on a sextet of tentacles—confirming what he already knew to be true. He gazed up at the Delfin’s once-magnificent tail, now bloodied and marred by wounds. “What a shame.”
At that moment the prisoner stirred and opened his eyes, then immediately recoiled at the man in front of him. Rogers stepped back, out of harm’s way, and watched the Delfin thrash in frantic agitation. The outburst didn’t last long; he soon overexerted himself and went limp, gasping for breath as he oscillated in the aftermath of his struggling. He looked so exhausted and frightened he could almost be pitied.
“Did he tell you anything?” Rogers asked Wilson.
“Nothing, sir. He’s hardly made a sound since we caught him.”
“Really.” He narrowed his eyes at the thick, scaly-looking collar around the prisoner’s neck. “I guess that leaves me no choice.”
A look of alarm crossed Wilson’s face as he watched his captain unsheathe his cutlass and slice the rope. The Delfin toppled to the deck with a mighty thud, grimaced, and tested his muscles with slow, stiff motions. His hair had completely dried and now appeared to be brown instead of black.
Captain Rogers sheathed his blade and kneeled down, grasped the end of the rope, and rose with a grave expression. He strode forward, his boots thumping on the deck, dragging the Delfin behind him. Too weak to resist, the prisoner could only twist and roll, leaving a trail of bright crimson streaks as scabs were torn from his wounds and he bled afresh. He reached out with bound arms and dug his fingernails into the planks, but this did nothing to slow his progress.
The crew stared, mouths ajar and eyes wide.
Wilson finally found his voice again: “Captain,” he said loudly, and Rogers halted, “the brig is aft.” He numbly pointed toward the stern.
“I know. I’m going to the galley.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but Wilson asked anyway. “Why, sir?”
Even the Delfin seemed to be awaiting his next words, head raised and alert. Rogers regarded his first mate soberly. “Because that’s where we keep the knives.”
For a few seconds the only sound to be heard was the faint lapping of the waves against the hull. Then Rogers resumed his march, his terrified captive clambering and clawing all the way. They disappeared down the ladder and into the passageway, the Delfin thumping hard on each step. There was the sound of the galley door being wrenched open, followed by a brief, violent struggle, then the hard slam of wood as the door was shut.
Jim Morita reached up and solemnly removed his hat.
“God have mercy,” Dugan murmured.
Wilson crossed his arms and covered his mouth with one hand. He knew precisely what the Captain was doing: protecting his crew from liability. If word of this incident ever arose, if anyone ever learned that the esteemed captain of the Americus had deliberately tortured information out of one of Hydra’s agents, someone was going to get hanged, and that someone was going to be Steve Rogers.
There was no helping it; it was simply the man’s nature. He was modest, devoted, self-sacrificing, and loyal as an old dog. If someone had to suffer, Steve Rogers volunteered. If someone had to risk his life, Steve Rogers stepped forward. If Admiral Fury blessed out the Americus for being reckless, Steve Rogers took full responsibility. It was for this reason his crew loved him and would die for him—because they knew he would do the same.
. . . and also because they understood if there was unpleasant work to be done, Steve Rogers would let no one’s hands be bloodied, save his own. That’s my duty, he once said. As your captain and commander, this burden I bear alone.
That promise seemed to echo in the ears of each of his men standing there in the early dawn, and they respected and feared him as never before.
Wilson didn’t stop them from gathering around the passageway, straining to hear what was going on within. In fact, he didn’t want anything to do with this. It was going to be brutal and bloody and horrible, and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life waking up in the middle of the night with the sounds of this particular interrogation ringing through his mind.
So he walked down to the quarterdeck, leaned against the aft bulwark, and let the knocking of Lang’s hammer drown out his thoughts.