Everybody had their stats hidden at first, but the example Virgam and I set – and the implicit credentials that came with your skills – had most people opening up by the second week. During that time, we fell into the rhythm of sea voyages: lots of routine, normal work; the games and shenanigans that the crew organized or fell into; and a spice of danger now and then that was more hazardous because you weren’t paying attention.
For the first time ever, I practiced dedicated combat skills. The soldiers regularly cleared space to practice, and all it took was one sailor who was brave enough to ask if they could try. Blake was agreeable to it. Though the soldier went easy, he still mopped the floor with the sailor. That didn’t discourage anyone, and a dozen more asked to learn. After a few days of organization and the captain’s blessing, sailors were picking up swordsmanship, axes, and shields. Most sailors already had small blades, but they’d never progressed them as quickly as they did with dedicated training.
With the right instructors, the first few levels of a skill were easy. Advancing skills became exponentially harder, however. Anyone with 10 levels of a skill knew what they were doing. 15 levels spoke for an experienced person, and anyone over 20 levels in a skill had both knowledge and dedication to it. Some skills were harder than others. Analyze, for example, was usually a skill people picked up when they were still crawling on their parents’ floors. However, pushing it past level 10 didn’t happen often. I’d been seeing and analyzing people all over the world, and I only had it at level 8! You just couldn’t train the skill with dedication like you could a weapon’s skill.
I picked up two levels in swordsmanship and one level in axes. The shields skill managed to elude me – I pretty much tucked the shield against my body and forgot about it. I picked up two additional levels in small blades and was happy that they were a field where us sailors could show the soldiers a trick or two – be it throwing daggers or the seaman version of dirty fighting.
Blake took charge of my personal development. That is to say, he enjoyed pounding on me and knocking me around. I’d given him enough slights since we met that it was justified, but did he have to knock me down with so much satisfaction? I picked up level one in axes quickly under his tutelage – it was amazing what a difference there was between using an axe as a tool and as a weapon – but didn’t progress much after that as he constantly had me on the defensive. The man was an expert in swordsmanship, but I think he used axes with me just for the bruising effect. After seeing him and the other soldiers spar, we all gained an increased appreciation for their abilities. The fighting was brutal! My only consolation during this training was confusing Blake with references to our sea axe – or seax – that didn’t resemble what he thought of as an axe in the slightest.
Training with the soldiers was also a good way to keep the soldier petty officers from causing trouble. When I wasn’t teaching new sailors or learning from old soldiers, Virgam and I ran about clarifying instructions and cleaning up messes before they became mishaps. Despite how ragged we ran ourselves, I was content to accept this as my lot. I was just going to put the time in, get my pay, and hop on another ship as I always did. Maybe do a little investigating into why Jennifer Marston was a passenger and who her lady friend was.
I was content – until the incident.
I was over the starboard side along with half a dozen other men, rope harnesses keeping us at the level of our work. We were patching small leaks from the outside of the hull. There was another half dozen men doing the same on the port side. I was paying special care to the spots close to the waterline, since we weren’t allowed in the lower hold to inspect for inevitable leaks. (I’d been told that there were a few soldiers with enough experience at sea to do those inspections and minor maintenance, but I wasn’t doing it and I didn’t know who was, so I worried.) The day was bright and clear, the sea waves minimal. It was a great day.
I was rechecking some of my work when I heard a commotion topside, followed by a chorus of voices shouting, “man overboard!” I dropped my brush and small pot of tar in the sea, then scrambled up my lifeline rather than wait for someone to hoist me up. I clambered over the gunwale and dashed to where people were crowding and pointing.
“There he is! I see him!”
“That’s John! He can’t swim!”
“Lower the boats, quick!”
“C’mon, we gotta move fast!”
I peered into the sea and caught a glimpse of John’s hands scrambling at the surface. I kicked off my shoes and didn’t hesitate another moment. I climbed the gunwale and leapt over the side. While in the air I controlled my breathing and readied myself for the plunge. 14 levels of swimming, 3 advancements of the Lifesaving achievement – I was going to be able to test out the new buffs I got from that. I could do this.
The moment I entered the water, I was aware of something strange. Something new. Whenever I was in the sea I’d noticed that it felt right, like I’d entered my home and it recognized me. Now I felt like there was someone else in that home, surprised to hear my entrance and calling out to me from anther room. Was there someone else who shared my perk in the water? Did we share a connection from that?
My awareness of the other – consciousness? Spirit? – faded. I was alone in my house again. How far away could I be from another person with my perk and feel them? They’d seemed distant. And … deep.
I didn’t enter the water perfectly smoothly, so that took a few seconds off my airtime. Still, I was sitting quite comfortably at 4:45. Amazing how long you could hold your breath with the right skills and practice, huh? If I wasn’t trying to rescue someone, I could just hang out down here.
I was trying to rescue someone, though, and was up against the clock. I shelved my strange experience for later and rose to the surface to orient myself. The Wind Runner was already slipping behind me. Whether by someone’s order or common sense, no one else jumped in the water to play hero.
I started in the direction I knew John had been. As I got closer and wasn’t sure which direction to adjust, I called out and bobbed on the crest of each wave, trying to see him flailing or hopefully treading water.
I didn’t see him.
I dove under the water to look about, either to see him sinking or his kicking legs under the surface. I scarcely noticed the saltwater in my eyes. The waters in these areas were neither clear crystal nor green murk. I felt confident I could spot John if I was in the area.
I didn’t see him.
I dove deeper, turning to look up at the surface like I was looking at a ceiling, and John’s kicking legs would be the fly crawling across it. Except he wasn’t there.
I didn’t see him!
Starting to panic, I turned and looked into the deep. There was something about that expanse, that void that was completely filled that called to me. Now it felt ominous. The sea didn’t spare you because you loved it. What was that? Was that him, a dark shape sinking further below? I dove further down, until I realized that I’d seen nothing at all. I scanned the waters all around me.
I couldn’t find him!
I swam to the surface and yelled his name over and over, looking for some sign that he was alive, that he wasn’t below. But he wasn’t there. He was gone.
The Wind Runner had done a good job of turning about and was now tacking back towards me, the rigging a hive of activity. Typically, people that went overboard got extra watches and cleaning duties to show the crews annoyance at the break in routine and extra work they did. John wouldn’t have to worry about that.
I treaded water and didn’t wave or try to get the attention of the lookouts. After all, John might still be alive a hundred yards off I didn’t want to draw them to me before him. But as I saw the Wind Runner tacking in my direction, the weight of my failure settled in and the enormity of the sea and sky crushed down on me. I was treading over a limitless expanse of water, under the limitless expanse of sky. I was a gnat between two giants. The enormity of the sea was something I’d experienced before, only now I wasn’t looking at horizons to explore with a ship’s deck under me. I was watching the horizons roll out of sight and knew that I wouldn’t see them without a ship to carry me.
The Wind Runner might not see me, they might make a navigational error and search in the wrong area. I might be left treading water with no recourse. The sea didn’t spare you because you loved it. Was this the fear that had kept others from going to the rescue of their crewmates?
I felt like I was giving in, but I waved to the Wind Runner. She continued tacking in my direction. I didn’t swim to meet her, holding on to shreds of hope that by staying in this area as a marker to the last estimate of where John had been, they might still find him.
As I waited, I berated myself with what I should have done differently. Where had I moved too slowly? Should I have not stopped to kick off my shoes first? Should I have waited another second and made sure that was John I’d seen? That was John I’d seen, right? Had I tempted fate with my confidence in my abilities? Had the strange feeling I’d had upon entering the water distracted me for the most crucial seconds?
I couldn’t come up with ideas that would have made my rescue more efficient. I’d acted quickly and to the best of my knowledge. What could I have done? What had gone wrong? Why had John fallen in? Was it a line snapped because I’d missed maintenance? Was it a dangerous order from a soldier that neither I nor Virgam had been around to correct? What had gone wrong, what had gone wrong?
The Wind Runner didn’t pass me by and they didn’t find John. They threw me a rope and I took it, half climbing, half being dragged aboard. Someone was there with a blanket, though the water hadn’t been that cold. They thought of blankets now? I shrugged it off. With a glance I saw that captain Michaels was at the wheel, taking us through the tacking maneuvers. He looked at me with an inscrutable expression but didn’t say or do anything else.
I approached the knot of sailors by the gunwale where I’d first jumped off. I was going to talk to Virgam but saw the incredibly guilty expression on the man next to him and knew he had the story.
“What happened?” I growled, seawater dripping from my clothes and hair.
The guilty man had his stats hidden, but I recognized him as a competent if inexperienced sailor by the name of Downey. He glanced at Virgam and spilled everything.
“The boys that were over the side, they had their ropes tied off, aye? And they’d be moved up and down when they needed it and their line would be tied off again, aye?”
“Aye,” I said, trying not to be impatient.
“Well, petty officer Blake was watching us … and, well Mr. Donaldson called out a course correction and we were adjusting the sails.”
I nodded, recalling hearing something of the sort before the whole thing went down. I also noted how Downey was trying to include as many others as possible – a natural reaction for a guilty person who couldn’t bear the blame themselves.
“Well, I went to untie the line for the sail, only it didn’t act as it should. Before I knew it, it had pulled free of my hands and the bitter end slipped over the side. It was John’s lifeline I’d untied!”
I bowed my head and closed my eyes, watching the scene play out. A beautiful day, routine work, people lax in their attention. John’s lifeline wasn’t tied in a good spot, Downey wasn’t focused. A sequence of errors, each one lining up just right to cost poor John his life.
I clapped my hand on Downey’s shoulder and didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to judge him, let the captain do that. He’d made a mistake, it had cost a man his life, he was going to have to live with it. I wasn’t going to offer him any consolation or rebuke.
As I turned away from him the anger and frustration that I’d built up in the water slipped away. The weight was again pressing down on me, even if I had solid deck under my feet this time. I shivered with a sudden chill and sought out the blanket that had been offered to me at first. John was dead. I knew it, and even as they kept lookout everyone else knew it.
The sea didn’t spare anyone. She was impartial and impervious.
I bundled myself in that blanket and made my way to the forecastle, where I stared out over the waters. What could I have done differently? Nothing once the emergency happened, but before … how could it have been prevented it before it happened? Mr. Donaldson sought me out and clapped my shoulder, much the same way I’d clapped Downey’s.
“Good on you for doing your best.”
I didn’t respond, and he didn’t try to stir me from my brooding. I’d done my best when I heard the shouts, but had I been doing my best before that?
How could we have prevented this? How could I have prevented it?
We could have only sent men over the sides if they had a chance of making it if their lifeline failed. We could have avoided having so many men over the sides at once. We could have had someone supervising the men over the sides and their lines. We could have had a knowledgeable petty officer around to see that Downey was untying the wrong line, or who could have immediately responded with the call that might have gotten help to him sooner.
That brought me to the crux of my internal dilemma: had I contributed to John’s death by avoiding responsibility?
What was I going to do about it now?
In that moment I made my decision. A prompt immediately appeared that I had been edging around and avoiding for the last few years.
You have learned the skill: Leadership.
People are more likely to follow your direction; your team receives a 0.5% boost to effectiveness per level.
The prompt was like a validation that I’d made the right choice. I cast off my blanket and made my way aft.
Mr. Donaldson had relieved the captain at the helm and retired to his cabin, which was probably for the best with the conversation I wanted with him. I found Blake to pass along my message.
“Tell the captain I’d like a word,” I said.
“About the incident? He’s already spoken with Downey, myself and the others.”
“No,” I said, meeting his gaze. “About me taking on my responsibility.”