Understand the Unknown, page 1
Understand the Unknown
There's a saying: It was the calm before the storm. Maybe it originated with people who lived close to the water and learned to read its rhythms and moods. Maybe those people had to get smart enough to read the world around them, the changing wind and air pressure and light, in order to predict what was going to happen next. In order to survive.
Maybe some poet first said it just that way, "It was the calm before the storm," talking about how once disaster hits, people tend to look back and remember just how peaceful everything seemed before. Even if, in reality, things were never really calm.
Anyway, it was the calm before the storm. Again. Because in Everworld, there's pretty much always a storm just waiting to crash down on your head. The calm is never more than temporary.
We were five teenagers from the Chicago area and we were a long, long way from the peaceful shores of Lake Michigan. We had just left a shattered, bloody Egypt and its musty, moribund gods. We were hoping to get back to Mount Olympus, where we would help its ranting, juvenile gods destroy the Hetwan, the forces of the alien god-eating god, Ka Anor. And we were traveling in a quinquireme, a Roman adaptation of a Greek or Carthaginian trireme. The crew was Greek. The captain was a small, dark man named Nikos.
How had a Roman warship manned by a Greek crew gotten to Egypt? Why was a warship being used to carry a cargo of dates, palm oil, and dried fish? I didn't even bother to ask. There was probably some sort of explanation, magical or otherwise, but I'd long ago stopped needing to know the "why."
I just dealt with the facts. There was a ship with a crew and the captain was willing to sail us down the Nile, out of Egypt, and into the ocean or sea or whatever the hell it was out there.
We'd paid him off in gold looted from the temple of lsis, Isis didn't need it.
Around me the others slept. April, Christopher, Jalil. Only Senna was fully awake, sitting with her knees to her chest, gazing at the blue sky. I was tired, too, but didn't feel like sleeping. Didn't want to go to sleep and cross over to the real world, the old world. Just wasn't in the mood to deal with my mother or my job or school or any of those other people and things about my old life that no longer seemed very important.
Nikos had let me take the rudder once I'd demonstrated that I was no lubber. So I stood in the stem, working the large oar that hung over the port side, observing the sky, the sea, excited in spite of myself to be on this ship. The quinquireme — a ship I never imagined seeing — was a long and slender warship. She was more a gal ey than a sailboat, really. The single rectangular sail was really of use only when the wind came from right astern and now with the wind on our starboard quarter, the sail was furled.
The boat had oars on each side, set in banks of five. There were three levels of benches, with two rowers on the top bench per side, two in the middle level, and one strong rower on each side of each bottom bench. As with the Viking longboat, the crew had to row in unison or they'd foul one anothers' oars. But in this case the ship carried less than a third of its nominal crew, so the oars were plied with less discipline and the ship moved sluggishly.
Back in the real world, I'd been doing some reading on great societies, particularly those that had risen and prospered through warfare of one sort or another. The real world was still good for that: for books. And the Romans made good reading.
The Romans were professional borrowers. Copycats and mimics. In typical fashion the Romans had stolen the idea for the quinquireme from the Greeks and improved on it. It was a cool ship, with its painted eyes on the bow and the long, dangerous ram that protruded underwater. It was a state-of-the-art killing machine, the Everworld equivalent of an Aegis class cruiser. Of course, if it had been relegated to merchant shipping and/or smuggling, it had to be on its last legs.
But old and tired, or fresh out of the shipyard, it was pretty much the same ship I'd have seen two thousand years ago in the real Rome, in the ancient real world. The real world had moved on, the real world had learned how to design sails and yards and masts and above al true rudders to allow a boat to lie close to the wind. Everworld had stagnated.
I could build a boat that would sail rings around anything anyone here had. As mighty as this ship was in its heyday, I nevertheless could take some weekend sailor's twenty-eight-footer and a box of Molotov cocktails and sink this ship or anything the Romans or the Greeks could float.
Still and all, it was a cool boat.
I glanced again at Senna, apart and alone. At April, curled into the fetal position, her long red hair covering her face like a blanket. At Christopher, head leaning back against the side of the ship, mouth open, snoring. At Jalil, sitting a few feet from where Christopher sprawled, arms folded across his chest, head down, long legs straight out in front of him.
Who were these people, really?
I'm not good at people and their motivations, what makes them tick and why. It's a serious weakness. I usually don't get people right, not at first anyway. Still, you can't spend days and days and what might be months, for all I know — the passing of time in Everworld having little if anything to do with the passing of time in the real world — with the same people without knowing something about them. Without coming to some sort of conclusion about their personalities and characters.
Without knowing, or being able to make a pretty close guess, what they might do or say in a particular situation.
Jalil is smart and unsentimental. Intellectually unsentimental, I mean; he doesn't shade or dilute the truth: He takes it straight up. I admire that. But it means that sometimes he's with me sometimes not. I trust him as a person, but he's no friend of mine, not really. There's no ordering Jalil to do something, no cajoling him, either. You convince Jalil. There's no other way to move him.
He and Senna have a strange relationship, maybe as strange as my own with her. I don't understand the nature of their connection, don't know where or when the roots were put down. But I do know, or think I do, that after what happened in Africa with the Orisha, after I agreed to help Jalil use Senna —use her for the good of the group — after that. Senna wanted very badly to hurt Jalil. Maybe not kill him, because I'm pretty sure that each of us is stil of some use to Senna and her own personal goals. But maybe make Jalil wish he were dead.
April is Senna's half sister and everything Senna is not. She's honest. She actually cares about other people. She's no cynic.
She's pretty and sexy and dramatic and funny. She's the girl you want to go out with because you know you'll have fun and you know things won't get weird and you know that even if it doesn't work out she'll let you down gently.
Senna, on the other hand, is the girl you want to go out with for the same reason you want to ride a Harley without a helmet.
It's fair to say that April loathes Senna, and though I can point to more than a few reasons for April to be angry at Senna, I just don't get the depth of the loathing. But, like I said, I don't get a lot of things. And as long as I can keep those two from killing each other, I guess I'll have done my job.
Christopher is a tough case to figure, though. Since this craziness started he's changed some. Christopher's always been right out there, totally up front about who he is, what he is —weak or strong, a jerk or a clown or a stand-up guy. When he's an asshole, he's an unapologetic asshole. When he's brave (and he often is) he still bitches about it. The whole stoic, take-it-like-a-man thing is lost on Christopher.
He drinks. My opinion? He drinks too much.
Maybe he's an alcoholic, I don't know. Maybe he'll beat it.
He seems to be getting past his more outrageous racial stuff at least. That's progres
Senna. What can I say about Senna; what can anyone say?
Human but other. Witch — but good or bad or a little of both? I suspect that only Senna knows who or what Senna really is.
And I suspect she wants it that way.
There was a time when I needed, when I wanted Senna.
There was a time when I was the addict and she was my pipe.
I'm past that. As past it as any junkie ever is. Back in Egypt, finally, after almost ten years apart, Senna came face-to-face with her mother. Not a happy reunion. Not exactly an Oprah moment.
Her mother is a self-serving creature, not so different from Senna herself, though without her daughter's genius for cool, deliberate manipulation. Senna's mom had abandoned her, basically to save her own ass and have what she thought would be a better life. Senna was not forgiving. Senna has what you might call flexible morals: Whatever she does to other people is fine; what anyone does to her is unforgivable.
Not exactly an earthshaking surprise to me.
And anyway, not my problem. I tried to turn my mind to the tactical position back at Olympus. That was our goal.
The Hetwan were besieging the mountain but had been stopped. For now. We had done a deal with the Coo-Hatch that should keep them from providing their primitive cannon to the Hetwan. Should. And the Greek defenses around Olympus should hold now. Should.
I tried to think about all that, tried to play Napoleon, to see the way to win. But I had a steering oar in my hand and tucked under my arm, and I felt the living deck of the ship under my feet, and I heard the creak and splash of the oars and the steady music of water rushing along the hull, and my mind was seduced away by those basic pleasures. I love boats.
I let go of worry and figured to hell with it, plenty of time to worry. It would be a long trip, and unless we caught a steady breeze going in pretty much the precise direction we needed to move, it would be a slow trip.
I gazed around at the flat sea. I sighed for the breeze, which was refreshing but useless. Squinted up at the sun and wondered if there was any way to build a sextant from available Everworld materials. Wondered if there was any point: After all, for all we knew, Everworld was flat or concave or shaped like a doughnut.
My gaze was drawn to a half-dozen flying fish breaking the surface. And then I saw the sail off the port bow. The distant sail bellied out with a wind that did not exist.
Calm over. Storm about to begin.
It was a smaller boat than ours, and faster. Maybe it was bringing up the wind, riding at the front of a new breeze, but I didn't believe it. Not from that direction, not running exactly counter to our own breeze. No. That boat was self-propelled somehow. There were no engines in Everworld — the place was not about technology — so whoever was in that boat was commanding the wind to rise just for him.
I looked at Senna. She was alert. Watching. Her gray eyes were dark with worry, the color of mercury.
"It's him," she said. "It's Merlin."
"Yeah. That was my guess, too."
We had evaded the old man in Egypt. He'd been called there by Senna's mother, but in the chaos of destruction that had followed we'd lost him.
As the strange boat closed in on us I could see the old man's long, once-blond, now grayish hair and beard, imagine his intelligent blue eyes, sunken beneath a lined brow.
Remember what I'd seen him do — bring dead animals to life, make a wall rise from a pile of rubble, command a dragon to do his bidding hold fierce Amazon warriors in suspension.
This was the wizard who wanted Senna, who wanted to keep her from Loki's clutches. Who would imprison her if he could, kill her if he had to.
Wasn't going to happen. Not if I could help it.
"Everyone up," I said. "We have trouble."
Jalil, Christopher, and April stirred, awoke with varying degrees of grace. Christopher shaded his eyes and stared. "It's freaking Merlin, man."
I called to Nikos. The captain was sitting in the shade under an awning, drinking wine with what had to be the first officer, a guy who occasionally stirred himself to yell at the rowers. The two of them were moderately drunk, but the sight of that sail sobered them pretty quickly.
"Captain? Can we outrun him?" Knew that it was a ridiculous question. How would the captain know the extent of Merlin's magic?
Nikos knew as well as I did that the other boat was not obeying the usual laws of sailing. "The gods will decide," he said with a fatalistic shrug.
"Well, kick the rowers into high gear," I said. "And raise sail.
We may get close enough to ram him."
"This is my ship, friend," Nikos said. "I will decide. And I do not wish to offend the gods. No. That boat is too small to be a pirate; he cannot attempt to board and take us. I think he is interested in something else." He gave me a fish-eyed look that made it clear he was not risking his ship for our sakes. The gods wanted us badly enough to blow this boat toward us? Fine with him; he'd been paid, and the gods were welcome to us.
No point in threatening a fight: The crew was small for a ship this size, but Nikos still had sixty guys.
"You worry about the gods? This isn't about the gods. See her?" I pointed at Senna. "She's a witch. Raise sail or she turns your cargo into so much worm food."
The captain thought that over for a moment. There's a real shortage of skepticism in Everworld, and he never doubted my word that Senna was a witch. "Raise the sail," Nikos ordered.
"We will run before the wind, but we will not outrun the will of the gods."
That was the extent of my brilliant plan. Raise sail and hope our fitful breeze would carry us away from Merlin's purposeful wind.
The rowers advanced their rhythm, the sail dropped, and we turned to take the wind from straight aft. The ship responded. I could feel it surge forward and I could see that it didn't make a damned bit of difference. The other boat would catch us. And then what? Was it Merlin alone? If so, maybe we could still keep him from boarding.
Then again, maybe not.
Didn't want to ask the others for ideas, though if someone made a brilliant suggestion, I'd put the plan in motion. Bet er Jalil's plan, or Christopher's, than no plan at all. No plan was what I had.
Senna? No. She had powers, but she was like a real y good high-school player trying to go one-on-one with Shaq. She was a long way from taking Merlin down. What were we going to
The sea erupted! The stretch of sea separating the two converging boats simply erupted — a pillar of water bil owed and rose up — impossible.
It looked like some sort of bizarre Hollywood special effect.
The sea was opening up, rising up, forming a twisting pillar of boiling green water. It looked like...
"It's like the Ten freaking Commandments!" Christopher yelled.
Exactly. Like the movie when the Israelites cross the Red Sea.
But now the water was taking shape. A huge figure was emerging from the swirling green whirlpool. It undulated wildly, but still a vague outline was discernible. A man, a human, at least a creature vaguely resembling a human. A god. Had to be. Like a massive, shifting, crudely human-shaped jellyfish.
Translucent, like a giant blob of hair gel on the palm of the water, piled upon the water, rising from it.
And inside the creature, part of the creature, swimming around in its belly and brain, there were what looked a hell of a lot like dolphins and sharks and rays and other sea creatures I couldn't quite make out. Clumps of seaweed, for all I knew.
Maybe whales — it was big enough.
The crew moaning and praying and wailing, the name Poseidon on every tongue. April, making the sign of the cross.
Jalil, openmouthed, still in some way, on some level outraged by the mere fact of magic, the Everworld reality of charms, spells, physical laws broken and mended and broken again.
Christopher, trembling, mumbling something a
Senna, standing alone, facing the monstrosity, a cold wind making her hair blow straight back. Calculating. Wondering whether this was Merlin's doing or whether the sailors were right and this was some far greater power.
And then, the watery thing spoke.
The voice if that's what it was — hard to tell with my eardrums near to bursting and my eyes closing against the sound, my feet slipping out from under me, knees hit ing the wooden deck. The voice spoke, shouted, roared like a too, too loud surround-sound system in a too, too small movie theater. The voice seemed to come from the entire body of living water, from no one place in particular, no lips moving or tongue wagging.
"Who dares to command the winds and waters of mighty Neptune? Who dares use magic to chal enge my wil ?"
It took me a second to get it. Neptune wasn't pissed at us. He was after Merlin!
I saw Merlin doing a quick bow-and-scrape and looking more nervous than I'd have thought possible.
"This arrogance, this impudence will not go unpunished,"
Then... he, it, Neptune was gone.
The squall attacked with such sudden violence it was like the concussion of a bomb. Winds of terrifying, irresistible force. The squall hit the sail, laid us over on our side. I slid, fell, tumbled down a deck suddenly as pitched as an IHOP roof.
I hit the rail, slammed hard, arm numbed.
A wall of green water swept over the ship. Would we come up? Would the boat swim?
The wave swept past, carrying away the mast, the sail, oars, many of the rowers, and all the crates and crap that had been stowed carelessly around the deck. The ship began to right itself, but so slowly, so heavily. It wallowed like a barrel. I spit water, clawed my way back to the oar, had to be able to steer — if the next wave caught us broadside we were al done.
"Row!" I bellowed. "Row, dammit!" The only hope was to get the ship moving, get her bow into the waves.
No rowers. The crew that hadn't been washed overboard was in a state of weeping panic.
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