“Eros on the Mineral Sea”
By Steve Oden
The rippling gravel surface made the sound of teeth grinding when the slender prow of Odysseus knifed through.
We were tired of the journey, listless on the ropes and pulleys, careless at the helm. Sailors of the mineral deeps should be more vigilant, but our company had been away too long.
The steel nets had been secured along the sides, the long-armed drills, cutters and scoops dismantled and put away. Our ship’s holds were full of sparkling uncut diamonds, emeralds and amethyst—treasure for the off-world traders but just so much crystal spindrift to us.
Why they valued the glittering things was a mystery. One trader shared with me and several crew mates in a tavern, after an evening of drinking and telling tales, that the minerals were called “gems” in his language, considered symbols of great wealth and representative of an ancient god of romance.
I’m all for the latter but wouldn’t give sea-sucked piece of pyrite for a worthless colored bauble to adorn a fancy lady’s finger. I understand human greed, however. Need and acquisition have forever propelled us into the mysterious and dangerous deeps—and love into even worse.
The voyage had been successful. The job was finished, and a good thing too. We were heartily disgusted with the seafaring life, especially by having to follow orders from the booby-headed skinflint who captained Odysseus. My crewmates and I swore this would be our last trip into the mineral sea on his ship.
I knew, of course, that not one of us would hesitate to sign on with another captain after existence ashore grew stale. For now, all we wanted was to get home, see our mates and families, drink ourselves sick.
But there was no way to ignore the lookout’s sudden warbling cry.
“Ware, ware… Wake ahead and she breaches! Two points off the larboard bow. Fifty chains distant.”
Our grumpy old captain, awakened from the lethargy that had affected his entire crew, impatiently demanded of the lookout: “What type of thing has surfaced, you crack-lensed pebble pounder?”
It could have been an ice mount spewing hail the size of a man’s fist or a shelf of newborn granite. Either was capable of harming our ship.
“Cappy, ’tis a squam and a big one. Oil ring at least five chains wide around the damned thing!”
Our captain was a greedy man, standing or asleep. This was an opportunity for adding to his profits, enriching him greatly. Even the most minor deck-scraper, entitled to miniscule shares, would count himself a lucky soul most times if we took a squam.
Curse his grasping soul, the captain didn’t hesitate to shout an order.
“Heave to and haul out the rail boats!”
The women and men on deck weren’t happy. They’d willingly chase a squam on the outward leg of a voyage, knowing a capture would fill the hold with gooey black liquid highly prized by the energy miners. The ship would turn around and head home with the guarantee of profit.
But on the return leg and so close to port? And with minerals already stowed securely below deck?
“Where ‘n Shar’s wormy navel will the damned fool put the oil if we’re lucky enough to take the deep dweller?” my sweetheart, Bettina Husker, wondered.
She spat a gob of phlegm over the side as we leaned into the ship’s list and used spray pumps to slick Odysseus’ rock-breaking beak. The prow dug hungrily into fractured stone and needed regular lubrication.
Below were strata 10,000 kilometers deep: layers of solid and molten rock separated by oceans of fluid minerals and pools of chemical slurry churned by the planet’s intense geologic and magnetic upheaval. The currents of flowing material and the interstices where superheated elements mixed yielded our livelihood and often our deaths.
“Are you volunteering?” I asked her.
Bettina always cast the explosive lances when a squam or similar denizen came into range.
“O’ course, I am. What’re ya thinking, that the captain will allow me to sit out this chase and not cast the bangers? He might view you as excess baggage, but who’s his best lance-flinger?”
“You are, m’dear. But I thought you disagreed with this chase.”
She spat again. “You dunderheaded scuttle-bug. We all follow our orders, but we don’t have to like ’em.”
Loud cursing in the mid-deck cargo hold signaled that the rail boats were being reassembled. Three vessels with magnetized bottoms and stout sled rails, the boats each held eight sailors. A bosun commanded the flotilla of surface skimmers, which were guided by the weight distribution of the occupants.
Like the Odysseus, the small craft rode the metallic veins in currents of gravel, frozen gases and melted glass, propelled by the attractive–repulsive forces of the rails. By throwing their weight from side-to-side, the sailors could jibe and tack.
Bosun Smedley Brom piped the assembly whistle. Different toots alerted crew women and men of their selection and tasks.
I was surprised to hear the three short bursts and flatulent wheeze that was my code. I’m not good in a rail boat, barely weigh 10 stones and have arms like those spindle crabs that skip across flinty pools. But as my darling Bettina had said, orders are orders.
“C’mon, scrags. Get a move on!” shouted the bosun. We clambered in and hung on for dear life as the boats were hoisted over the side.
The hardest part of launching a rail boat was first contact with the chaotic mineral sea. It made your stomach queasy and head spin. The rebellious magnetism produced a greasy slide that could ricochet a boat into the gravel waves or plunge her into deep strata, never to be seen again.
Our rail boat—Bettina and I wound up in the same one, of course—plopped easily in a vein of liquid pyrrhotite. Betty Monger piloted us expertly into the flow and we drew away from Odysseus.
Bosun Brom from boat No. 1 hailed us through a speaking tube and issued his orders. He wanted us to follow along in column until the squam’s course was determined, then boats Nos. 2 and 3 would peel off to attack from the sides.
My beautiful Bettina stood tall in the bow, a step behind the pilot whose arms and hands we watched for commands to lean sideways or gather in the stern when the rail boat was on plane. This was the same way we guided Odysseus, only with most of the crew at their weight stations along the port and starboard sides.
My duty was to serve as her fuser, trimming the wick to time the explosive burst so it would drive the lance deep inside the squam’s nerve ganglia. An accurate cast and properly cut fuse ensured quick paralysis of the creature. We could not kill something so massive, only stun it temporarily.
Once the squam was immobilized, the Odysseus would come alongside with hoses to pump out the oil sack. At least, this was the way the procedure was supposed to work. Things seldom went smoothly on the mineral sea, however.
In this case, the squam had detected our magnetic signature and was turning toward us, cavernous maw opened wide to consume the metal minnows we represented.
Boat No. 1 and poor Bosun Brom didn’t react in time. The vortex of swirling mineral melt from the thing’s rapid turn sucked them inside a vast mouth ringed with stalactites and stalagmites.
Squams are blind, deaf and stupid beasts, concerned only with feeding on the tiny nickel-iron crustaceans from which they derive nutrition. There was nothing personal or territorial in the swallowing of our lead rail boat. Just as it would be when the looming mouth sucked us inside.
Betty Monger knew her business. Despite the horror of witnessing the death of her bosun and fellow sailors, she stabbed to port with her left arm, signaling that she had detected a current of pyrrhotite to follow with her magnetometer. I felt pride watching my crewmates dance across the deck, sure-footed and graceful in the face of destruction.
“Mind your business, Bartleby!” hollered Bettina, whetting the razor edges of her obsidian lance blade. “Set the fuse for one chain’s distance.”
She gave me a warning look. One chain was almost in the explosive shock zone. Our rail boat might be obliterated. But I cut the fuse exactly and fed it into the bang pod behind the lance’s head.
A groan from my mates caused me to look up. Boat No. 3 had made an ill-timed or poorly executed tack to starboard. Suddenly trapped in a pool of diamagnetic minerals, she slowed as the squam bore down. The pilot made a last-ditch attempt to catch a wild ferrous wave, but this resulted in a magnetic imbalance that shot the vessel high in the air like the cork bursting from an ale bottle.
We heard the screams as our crewmates incinerated in the melting depths.
“Light the fuse!” Bettina commanded.
She had stepped up on the pilot’s platform. My love stood tall, the heavy lance drawn back, her broad shoulders and long arms belying the muscle strength she possessed. Enough to carry me like a babe to our hidden place in the hold or throw a sharp projectile into what passed for a brain inside the squam’s head.
We skimmed down the beast’s thick gypsum side, one chain away from destruction.
The fuse fizzed merrily, but I found no cheer in our predicament. The split-second before her cast, Bettina looked back at me and winked. She knew the lance would be on target before the throw.
Afterward, as our rail boat circled the disabled squam and waited for the Odysseus, Betty Monger and Bettina conversed in low tones about the official complaints they would file against our captain. Seventeen crewmates dead, needlessly.
“And the damned squam’s oil sack nearly empty… his is what greed will get you every time,” groaned Betty, a level-headed gal if there ever was one on the mineral sea.
“I’ll be surprised if the second in command doesn’t relieve the captain immediately and take us to port under the nautical emergencies section of the regulation book,” Bettina observed. Her heroic form was backlit by glowing currents of melted minerals that reflected the red sun’s rays. I felt a stirring.
“Might be for the best. The greedy bugger was solely responsible for this mess. We had enough profit from the voyage. Why did we need more?” asked my beautiful lance-thrower.
I kept my mouth shut. Greed and love are two sides of the same coin. You can never get enough, only make mistakes while pursuing your treasure. I’d share this thought later, privately, with Bettina. She might slap me silly or embrace me.
I thought either way would be fine as long as we were together, off the damned mineral sea.
“Eros on the Mineral Sea”
Constellary Tales Issue No. 4, December 2019
Steve Oden is a recently retired newspaper and magazine editor (40-plus years) and senior citizen who indulges in speculative fiction writing. Several of his short stories are scheduled for publication in the next year.