The thousand islands


I soon found that while this boat tacked readily, upon passing to the north of one island – small, heavily wooded, tall trees, dark green due to a dense growth of brush below the start of the foliage of the trees – that the wind on the west sides of these places tended to be strong enough to build up a fairly impressive level of speed quickly. More importantly, the boat 'coasted' well enough that if I picked my route carefully between them, I could weave the craft between the closer-together ones such that by the time it had slowed to a near-standstill, I was able to catch another 'blast' of wind – and rocket ahead for another mile or two, and then coast into the west side of another.

All the while, however, I could tell I was getting closer to that one location, and when I broke out into 'open sea', then I had steady wind, though it was weaker than I had expected due to the islands to my east breaking up the flow to my left instead of my right.

“These do that,” said Sarah, as she wrote. “The two of them are still sleeping off being captured by fetishes. Where is this place with the ships?”

“About another hour away, if that, at least at this speed,” I said. “Now, can you dig up the rocket-launcher, or do you wish me to?”

“Best let me, though if you can tell me where it is, it might help,” said Sarah – who then dug out the list from her pack. She looked down it, then, “bag twenty-one has it. I'll need to undo that bag's ropes, then...”

“No, dear,” I said, deadpan. “Just go in there with this battery torch, find the tag you're after, then unzip it partially and bring the pieces you need out one at a time, then get a vest of rockets, and finally some of those thermal heads. We'll want at least one rocket with one ready-installed, as we're going to need it to sink that ship that's going to want our hides for blowing up their harbor – and that harbor is going to go up hard.”

Sarah took my 'torch', then over the next fifteen minutes, she snuck into the roofed-over area, then brought out the various bits of the launcher, followed by a vest of rockets. I was able to tell her precisely what to do and how to do it, though she'd done this enough to not need it.

At least, not until I spoke of fitting a thermal head, then doing a quick changeover of the 'visor'. She then seemed mystified, until I had her take the rudder and sail-steering 'oar' and showed her just how to do it.

She was about to change positions with me when we heard, “he'll need to take that shot, as firstly, that thing will work better with him, and not a little better; then he'll know exactly what to look for so as to wreck the place thoroughly and then sink that one ship, at least with that one location and that ship that ends up chasing you. You can do the others, as they're nowhere near as capable for trouble or hiding.”

Sarah seemed crestfallen, until I spoke of needing someone to keep the sail filled and our course steady while I hung off the rear of the boat on the 'toilet seat'.

“I'll steer, then,” said Sarah. “Using that thing scares me green out on the ocean here, and if I must use the privy while on this craft, I want to do so on land, as they have these fish out here.”

“Killer-fish?” I said. “What do they look like?”

“You'll see plenty of them in the third kingdom port tomorrow morning,” said the soft voice. “Suffice it to say, you've heard of fish that are somewhat like them.”

Goiter?” I asked.

“Wrong name, right idea,” said the soft voice. “Sarah's scared of those things for a very good reason, the same as anyone who's sailed on the open sea, even Pieter Huygens – who is reckoned to have more stone than anyone afloat.”

“So they are called Goiters,” I said. “I know what they are then – big mouth, bigger-yet appetite, like to eat anything at all, blood in the water draws them if they're within miles...”

“That is a killer-fish, all right,” said Sarah. “Now I see smoke, though it is a far distance off, but I recognize that smoke.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Evil engine, right?”

“I think so,” said Sarah. “That one just started up, as they're a bit sootier then.”

“Means those people are getting ready to get under way,” I said.

“Not for a while they aren't,” said the soft voice. “Recall how cold-blooded that one engine was?”

I nodded mentally.

“The ones used in these ships take a good hour's time to get 'a full load of soot in them', which is one thing that one man is known for doing prior to getting underway, in case he must move quickly from the very start.” Pause, then, “though if his boat is ready to go, however, it will indeed be ready to go – and he'll be able to give it full throttle as soon as he's clear of the harbor and the channel leading into it.”

“And, of course, he will full-load his guns before getting underway,” I said. “Now, let's see – put in a super-quick fuse, one that's just a bit too hot to be fired...”

“He's picky about his gunners, also,” said the soft voice. “More, he doesn't have anything big enough that it loads that way – all of his guns use 'fixed' ammunition, which has certain advantages regarding rate of fire, as you well know.”

“What does he have, then?”

“He may have fewer and smaller guns than anything else currently in their inventory, but he does stay on top of their maintenance, he does make sure his gun-crews actually practice some, and he does have enough guns with range that he can cause trouble further away than you can get to him with anything you have, save unless you fire one of those thermal-head rockets and get some elevation for 'indirect fire' – which means you'll need to shoot at him then.”

“Uh, set lock manually, then fire at an elevation that gives several miles of range and it goes down the stack and then into the engine?” I asked.

“That's how it was commonly done by some of the more-successful rocket teams when they were 'hunting' ships and anything else that used that type of engine,” said the soft voice. “Indirect fire, however, has one big advantage with that ship.”

“What?” I asked.

“He'll have a full load of soot, remember?” asked the soft voice. “He'll be running 'full out' or as close as he can manage at the time, which means not only will he be spitting a lot of fire and soot and smoke into the air, but then his engine will be ripe for exploding – and he'll sink like a dropped rock when it blows up.”

I thought to ask for wind as Sarah finished assembling the rockets, then as I did, I had an impression.

I wanted to sink that one ship. More, I wanted to sink him well away from his current port of call, as if he went up inside it, he'd not have had a chance to 'rattle' that one 'Serious Witch', and more, rattle those witches up at Norden. Finally, there was something else in that general area, something a bit south of where we'd 'nail' that ship, and it needed either rigging or blowing up with a rocket.

“No, just about four or five rounds of 'hot red tracer',” I thought, as I adjusted the sail and caught more wind, then found that I needed to begin tacking once more.

“Best ask for some wind,” I thought.

Instantly, the sail filled, and within perhaps twenty seconds, the boat had accelerated to nearly thirty miles an hour. I then saw just how far we had to go to reach this place. That soot plume was huge, as in it could be seen for a considerable distance under the right conditions, much like my starting up the Abbey's generator had called every Valley refugee within sight or sound of it – and that was easily twenty miles, if not more yet.

“Not twenty miles, but closer to fifty,” I thought, regarding how far we needed to travel yet.

“Yes, if you speak of a straight line,” said the soft voice. “Don't be shy about asking for wind – as you don't want that one character to come out of their harbor and get into the open ocean before you shoot at the harbor.”

“Oh, as then we'll get nailed,” I murmured. I then asked for wind again.

The sudden ripping acceleration the two of us experienced was such that within perhaps twenty seconds, I glanced to the side and saw that we were once again airborne – and now, the boat was truly tricky, as in weight-shift had substantial effect, the rudders little in comparison, and the sail – that was the main way of steering the thing as it shot across the surface of the water in 'ground effect', where the huge cloth caught between the pontoons acted like a wing of sorts.

It was also moving 'at the speed of an angry hornet', as Sarah put it, and that smoke cloud drew closer by the minute. I then had an idea: I would need to actually go into the inlet.

“No, not really,” I thought, as I steered but a few degrees south of due west. “I think I can hit that tank via indirect fire, which means we fire before that one guy's out of the channel, the huge explosion gets him in the butt, it messes up his boat...”

“Best hurry, then, as he's getting sooted up to the degree needed to get underway,” said the soft voice. “You've got about another twenty miles to go now, or about another fifteen minutes at your current speed, and I'd position myself such that I touched down but a few miles from that inlet, change over, let Sarah get comfortable at the tiller, and then take your shot – and then let her reload that launcher while you get the boat moving again while that man comes after you.”

“He's going to be transmitting for all he's worth, isn't he?” I asked. “Really shake those people up a lot where he's based.”

“True, and now you're getting a slice of the bigger picture,” said the soft voice. “Anything you can do to keep that bunch overseas guessing and off-balance is just going to make it easier for you and harder for them when you take the place, and when their best ship-leader suddenly drops from sight like a rock, then they're going to be right on the verge of going for each other at most levels of leadership overseas.”

“And, of course, that one boat that's about half-way to Norden by now is not going to turn around and try for us – or is he?” I asked.

“Him, no, as 'orders are orders', and he has his – and he's the most-trashed and least-competent of the lot, so he'll continue his mission until he returns to his home base when he's due to do so,” said the soft voice. “Of course, that will mean he gets the ax, but then, that will happen to every still-surviving ship-leader among those running ships much north of the third kingdom port.”

“Those people in the other port...” I asked. These ships came from an entirely different location than those we would be meeting.

“No, as they're 'proles', and hence are more or less in the dark about all of this – and those in leadership know that,” said the soft voice. “Besides, getting more surface-ship-leaders will be far easier than getting replacements able to keep those others from sinking – as those people don't just 'drive' their boats. They have to know how to work on them, also; then, they're usually not given nearly the leeway that those on the surface fleet; finally, those boats invariably have two or sometimes three spies on them, as those people are not 'clothed' so they look like witch-soldiers.”

“And the surface fleet, because everyone involved is at least nominally a witch, is totally different,” I said.

“Much more than that,” said the soft voice. “Much more.”

As the smoke column began to slowly fade, however, I knew another matter: our departing ship had 'a full load of soot' in his engine or engines, and would soon weigh anchor; more, that port was drawing closer at the rate of well over a mile a minute: finally, I would need some minutes to set up after 'landing' the boat. I asked that the wind slow gently, then over the course of perhaps eight to ten minutes, we 'landed' and slowed to an estimated twenty miles an hour, then as I steered the boat to windward of this one huge island, I saw a clearly demarcated channel – and again, more smoke, only this time, the source of that smoke was moving.

There was no time to waste, and as I directed Sarah, I loaded the rocket launcher, then went out the back door, knelt on the platform, and aiming up, I prayed – and this, eyes closed, somehow seeing the target, I squeezed once.

Wait. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three...

Shift slightly, a bit to the left. Up a bit more. Need a bit more range.

Squeeze.

The pop of launching this time was astonishingly loud, and as I got back inside the cabin, Sarah moved out of the way and I adjusted the sail for best 'drive', then steered forty degrees to the south by compass heading. I got more wind nearly instantly, which proved wise, as not ten seconds later, I heard the screaming howls of several artillery rounds as they passed just overhead. I looked right, and saw huge waterspouts some three hundred yards further on. I then looked to the left.

A sudden flash of light all but blotted out this one island, then a wall of water nearly forty feet high shot out of this narrow inlet.

A wall of water with a sizable ship riding it like a surfboard, and as our craft accelerated, I was astonished to see more waterspouts hitting in our wake.

These were much further distant, though, even if our pursuer had his bearing right on us. His range – that was the question, and if I went by the size of those waterspouts, his guns weren't toys.

Thirdly, he had a fair number of them, and as his ship rode out that tidal wave, the billowing inferno that came up from the island it had just left was enough to make me wonder just what had happened.

Until the island all but vanished in a huge white flash, one that made me glad I was wearing dark goggles.

“That got to that stinker, all right,” spat Sarah. She was loading up another rocket. “Now where is this next place, the one with the pirates?”

“Perhaps twenty miles as the quoll flies, but unless that smoky wretch to our rear has got a lot of engine in that thing, he's going to have bad trouble trying to keep up,” I said. “We'll get there in perhaps half an hour. He tries going half that fast, and his engine is going to burst.”

That, however, did not stop this fellow from 'putting the distillate to his engine' – Sarah's words – as within less than a minute, he was shooting a mountain of soot into the air amid a jet of red-white-yellow fire, all the while his forward-facing guns continuing to fire steadily. There was but one trouble.

While he'd drilled at some length regarding his gunnery, either his competition didn't practice at all, or these people's weapons were not that accurate – as we continued opening the gap, and his shells kept hitting in our wake.

He was sending one our way every second or so, and once or twice, they landed close enough to have me worried.

“What size does that wretch have?” I asked.

“Mostly seventy-five millimeter guns, with a number of smaller ones,” said the soft voice. “Be glad he has nothing bigger.”

“Why?” I asked, as we were bracketed. The nearest shell landed over a hundred yards distant.

“Because if he did, you would have been sunk by now,” said the soft voice. “The guns on the other ships, the ones that exploded when that harbor went up in smoke, fired much larger shells, and more, unlike what he has, those have terminal guidance – so not only can they shoot a lot further, and the 'danger radius' is a lot bigger from their blast and splinters, but they're nowhere near as limited by the poor quality of gun-crews compared to what he has – and when I said he 'practiced', I meant 'he fired some shells now and then, not 'he practiced every chance he got, and fired as many rounds as he could beg, borrow, or steal'.”

“Meaning he's not going to get them closer than he...”

An earsplitting whine seemed to home in on where we were heading, and I steered with both sail and rudders. The shell overshot our mast to land beyond us, but the important matter was if I had not moved abruptly to the side by nearly thirty feet, the thing would have hit our sail – and that shell would have gotten us.

“More wind, I guess...”

I wished I had not thought so, as again, that sudden ripping acceleration, and here, within perhaps five seconds, we were once more flying. More importantly, we were flying high enough that I could learn to actually bank and steer the boat as if it were an aircraft, and here, I was amazed.

I was becoming good at this business, so much so that as the shells continued to fly around us, I thought to ask, “now how far can that wretch shoot?”

“He's got maximum elevation on his guns now, which means about another three minutes at your current speed, and you're well out of range of his weapons,” said the soft voice. “He has a few missiles, but at this range, there isn't anything you have that he can lock onto, and those weapons are sufficiently 'costly' that he needs to get prior authorization from 'highest command' to use one – as in he's got to ask if one can be fired, his request goes through multiple layers of authority – about three levels 'above' that one 'serious witch' you heard – then it's got to go back down that long and stretched-thin chain of command – and he doesn't have that much time.”

Accordingly, I asked to slow when it felt like three minutes was 'up', but as I did, I noted that Sarah was pointing at another island.

An island with wide-open water showing between the dense growth of trees, this inlet directly open to the west. It was nearly a straight shot from where we were.

More, even at our current distance, I could easily tell that there were a lot of sailing vessels in the place, and more, every one of these things was a pirate ship – either a part-time pirate, or in at least one case, a full-time pirate – as in that individual did nothing else, rather than the far-more-usual situation of 'piracy when it paid well with minimum risk, and legitimate-looking shipping otherwise'.

I kept steering for that inlet, as I wished to give Sarah a good shot at that mess, and I was more than a little surprised when she went out the back, then some seconds later, I heard the unmistakable pop and saw that small red dot flashing away in a slightly arching trajectory toward the 'nearest' pirate ship.

“That wretch has got a full load of dynamite and enough distillate on his boat that...” My thoughts were going rapidly, and I was concentrating on getting ready to move.

Sarah came in the door, then urged me to 'get moving', as she'd aimed at an obvious cargo of light distillate.

“How could you, uh, tell?” I asked, as I maneuvered back into the wind and then asked for some.

“I could see it on that visor thing,” said Sarah. “I saw the kegs, I put the marks dead center on them, I held steady, and then I fired.”

As if to apprise me of 'trouble', a sudden blinding white flash shot flames and smoke high into the sky, then as if the entire island were made of high explosives, it went up in a huge mushroom cloud ringed with fire and gouting black smoke – and as the shells once more began to splash around us – that one ship-leader was pushing his engine or engines to their breaking point – I asked for more wind.

It proved wise, as this time we 'took off' just in time to avoid being hit by a salvo of shells. It was obvious he was getting wise to our 'flying' tricks, and I had to flit about like a moth for several minutes until he gave matters up once more.

But one trouble, and this Sarah spoke of as I continued 'flying'.

There were at least eight smoldering 'pirate ships' coming out of that one harbor under all the sail they could tie on, and amid oncoming vast clouds of smoke and flame, they saw this one ship bearing down upon them, turned broadside-to once they had closed, and then the dull booms and bangs I heard miles to our rear spoke of one thing.

The pirates thought this one smoke-billowing ship had put a shell in their base as a declaration of war, and now, these thugs were out for blood, while that one man...

“That's right, use up the rest of your larger ammunition,” I muttered, as the 'naval battle' to our rear became steadily louder. One huge flash, then another, then a third announced that someone was carrying quantities of high explosives, while Sarah looked out the back of our boat through the open door.

“Ooh, they're shooting at each other, and while I doubt those pirates are doing much to that other ship...”

“No, actually they are doing something,” said the soft voice. “He's got to slow down a lot to avoid destroying his ship, and they're getting in close enough that their round-shots are actually hitting his ship. Granted, they're just bouncing off of its superstructure for the most part, but more than one of those cannonballs have already smashed something on that ship that was chasing you – and that something was important enough that he's going to have trouble getting his shells close enough to be worrisome.”

“Smashed s-something?” I asked.

“More than just a commonplace 'something' – as in his gun-laying equipment and fire coordination gear is inoperable due to his sensor suite being wrecked by that round-shot,” said the soft voice. “One of them just fired a broadside-load of bagged roer-balls at a distance of five hundred yards as they 'crossed his T', and those hard-lead spheres bounding along that one ship's deck got more than a few of the big ship's gunners and deck personnel.”

More smoky broadsides, then suddenly, faintly, I heard a crashing noise that segued into something that made me wonder.

“That time they put a round-shot into the cabin,” said the soft voice, “and the remaining pirates are now close enough that they're bouncing more round-shots across and along his deck – and more than one gun has been wrecked by them doing what they're doing, and that's but the start of things as far as they're concerned.”

“You mean the pirates are actually damaging that ship?” I gasped.

“Yes, even if they're not going to sink him, but he is going to sink them,” said the soft voice. “Oh, two more pirates just came out of that harbor, and they're raising all sail in order to go after the chief source of their latest troubles, and these people have shells, fresh-bored guns of 'siege' caliber, and larger crews than those ships that first came out, so a lot of those pirates are going to climb up their masts and shoot down onto that larger ship.”

“And do more damage to it with their larger guns,” I murmured, as another 'huge' broadside ripped through the air to hit with dull clangs and rattling noises.

“Sounds like they're still going at it hammer and tongs,” I said. “Now, when are those...”

Faintly, I heard first one whirring howl, then another, then two more – and then suddenly several more distinct 'shell' sounds, all of these followed by crashing noises as the shells hit either the water or the target. Sarah described what happened next.

“They're hitting that bigger ship with shells now,” said Sarah. “I'm not sure if they're doing much to it, but those pirates are hitting that ship some, and those shells look to be filled with something that's stronger than the commonplace for shell-filling.”

“Then perhaps one will put a shell through a ventilation passage,” I murmured. I could just see such a shell screaming its way inside the ship, where it would then detonate upon hitting something solid – but what Sarah then told me said that these latest arrivals were good.

“That one big ship has a fire on its deck now,” said Sarah. “I think it has a fire inside of it, as its engine appears to be smoking but little compared to its deck – and its' engine is still spewing a lot of smoke.”

“Going to really make that wretch mad,” I murmured. “First, his port gets blown up good, then he gets his ship pounded by a bunch of pirates...”

“He is getting that, all right,” said Sarah. “These latest people must think 'get close enough that you can put soot on your target', as that's just what they're doing, and then they've got lots of people up in their masts shooting down onto that bigger ship, and...”

“No, just toss that big jug of southern cleaning solution right down onto his deck,” I said. “Yes, then follow it with a big short-fused bundle of mining dynamite wrapped with old chains.”

“What will that do, other than cause a big explosion?” asked Sarah. “Will it sink that larger ship?”

“No, but it will irritate that ship-leader so stinking much that he will toss what caution he has left, and go after us with the goal of either achieving our demise or getting himself killed,” I said. “Good, irritated ship-leaders tend to make more and worse judgment errors.”

The massive flash of light that then resulted had Sarah screech, then yell, “he's on fire, he's smoking like a burn-pile, and every single one of those pirates is gone.”

“They blew themselves up?” I asked.

“Intentionally, no,” said the soft voice. “Tossing that big of a bundle of dynamite on top of a jug of real southern cleaning solution, though – the resulting blast was so bad that it set off everything else those pirates had, and that did something to that other ship that that ship-leader is not enjoying in the slightest.”

“What?” I asked. “Cover his nice clean ship with soot?”

“Much worse than that,” said the soft voice. “Half his crew is dead, half the remainder is injured, his ship is significantly damaged, and his engine is now running very rough, due to some damage it took. More, he's sprung several plates, so he's taking on water, though the pumps are currently keeping that situation well controlled.”

“His guns?” I asked.

“Most of them no longer have people able to fire them,” said the soft voice, “most of his ammunition is gone, many of his guns are damaged and the rest have become 'seriously inaccurate', so he figures that the best he can do is run you down – and he's prepared to do just that, as he now knows he's lost nearly everything he holds dear.”

“Good,” I muttered. “Really mad now. I hope he's mad enough to do something really dumb.”

Whatever constituted 'really dumb', though, had me wondering, though once the pirates were gone, he throttled back up, and this time, he really meant it – as in “I do not care if my engine blows my ship up or not! I want everything it can do, and nothing held back!”

He also resumed shooting, though now the shells were flying so wide of the mark and were so few in number that he was clutching at straws.

He knew that.

I knew that. I also knew that he figured he had nothing to lose, and that suddenly made him a much more dangerous opponent.

“Yes, if he wasn't 'putting in the stupid drugs' right now,” said the soft voice. “That's about the dumbest thing that man could do, as otherwise, he has a slim chance of making it back to port, or a slimmer-yet chance of sinking you before he becomes too damaged to continue the chase.”

“Too damaged to continue the chase?” I asked.

“Remember, his engine is damaged,” said the soft voice. “He is now running a damaged compression-ignition engine beyond 'prudent' ratings – in fact, beyond even 'war-emergency ratings'.” Pause, then, “you've seen enough of those go up to have an idea as to what happens when one lets go.”

“If he keeps that up, then it's just a matter of time before his ship goes down,” I murmured. “Now, that place where Norden is – it's along the west side, as there, they get the best wind and the most sun, so they have their fish-processing plant...” My voice went up an octave, then, “fish processing plant?”

“Yes, they have one there,” said the soft voice. “Norden does not merely supply its own populace with fish there – they also secure a lot of food for functionaries of one color or another, and hence that island not only has a large fish-processing plant, but also an extensive collection of tanks to store the offal.” Pause, then, “that offal, once suitably fermented, is then conveyed by barge to that first island you blew up, where it was made into a fuel suitable for compression-ignition engines – and the leadership overseas has a lot of those things.”

“Lot of them?” I asked.

“They're preferred power sources if you're in love with that black book,” said the soft voice. “Then, that fuel is more or less 'free for the taking', and finally, Norden's people do most of the 'hard' work of catching the fish.”

“Hard?” I asked. The place was steadily drawing closer, our gap between ourselves and our pursuer was once more widening, the target was 'huge', and the smoke clouds would both wreck...

I then had a question, and it related to that last one.

“Hard?” I asked once more.

“It's gotten a lot easier since they've been equipped with nets,” said the soft voice. “They catch ten times the fish in a given amount of time, then they have small outboard motors that are easily used...”

“Outboard motors?” I gasped.

“Yes, small ones, ones that barely run,” said the soft voice. “That's deliberate, by the way, as these people aren't terribly bright.” Pause, then, “the chief matter is what those motors use as fuel.”

“What are they?” asked Sarah.

“Why, a standard species of motor made where you are going across the sea,” said the soft voice. “Lots of smoke, fire out of the unmuffled exhaust when it's run hard, and noisier than anything short of what a productive potter uses.”

“Then I know what those are, and I think I know what to look for, also,” said Sarah. “It's bright orange colored, this among a long row of tanks, and it's got a rounded top, correct?”

I nodded, then said, “aim for that, dear. Hit that thing, that fuel goes up, every single tank gets ripped open and the tankage-gases ignite explosively, and...”

“Can you say 'huge smudge pot'?” said the soft voice. “That ship-leader, given he's reduced to tools less effective than what Sarah has, and he's completely trashed – he'll just blunder on into that smoke.”

“Hence we let him get out where we've got a good shot at him, I set the warhead, I fire, and then up sail and we scoot before his side-facing guns open up.” I wondered if what I had just said would work, at least until I heard otherwise.

“He no longer has ammunition for those – those of them still able to be used, that is,” said the soft voice. “The only guns he has that still have ammunition, other than personal weapons and a few rifle-caliber machine guns, are the two foremost bow guns – and with his fire-control apparatus wrecked, his sensor suite destroyed, and their best gunners dead or too badly hurt to wish to do much beyond 'meet Brimstone in the solid', then about all he can do is fire off what he has remaining and hope he gets one close enough to stop you.”

Norden's site would be hard to miss, as while Norden's people had been there for many years, their 'assistants' had transformed the place within the last year. Now, each 'Spam' produced three times the amount of dried fish meal to send back home that he used to, the surplus was tinned and put up to ship back to that location across the sea, the sheer tonnage of fish that area produced was beyond comprehension, and the leadership got all of the compression-ignition-engine-fuel it could possibly use and then some.

“And then some?” I asked. “Don't tell me – they've been taking that stuff up to Norden.”

“More than just that,” said the soft voice. “While Norden lacks for edible fish off of its coastline, they don't lack for fish suitable for making into fuel, and those training them are teaching them a great deal, as well as exporting a lot of 'old' hardware to that place in exchange for things they want or need.”

“Fish suitable for making into fuel?” I asked.

“Yes, those called killer-fish make excellent fuel, and those are very common in those coastal waters, hence they are killed with poison and dragged aboard, where they are cut up and tossed into the fish-holds,” said the soft voice. “More importantly, doing that has taught Norden a lot about both ship-handling and ship construction, which is one of the main reasons they've progressed as much as they have recently.”

“Main reasons?” I asked.

“A lot of old and obsolete equipment has gone there, also, and that location overseas is getting a lot of mostly-refined ferrous alloys for their equipment,” said the soft voice. “Then, they have ample amounts of 'black-hole coke' that just needs a bit more processing to turn it into synthesis coke, and then, there's also the distillate Norden produces.”

“Norden produces distillate?” screeched Sarah. I could tell she was looking at the next island, but I knew that wasn't it. The one we wanted was one of the largest ones this far north, as 'Spam Island' was easily four miles long, with a mile-long stretch of fermenting vats, each of these things white-painted and fifty feet or more high, with the orange one roughly in the center – while in a large number of recently-erected boathouses, the most-recent vintage boats – their wood from Norden, for the most part, while their engines from this other location at the north end of where we were going to effect regime-change – were put of an evening, there to be serviced by the twenty or so individuals that kept those engines running, assembled the boats themselves, ran the nets through the net-repair machines, and then reported daily on the net back to their home base at the northern tip of this island across the 'gulf' from where we were.

Its northern end was about even with that of the mainland, while where we would 'enter' that place would need to be near the southeast corner. From there, perhaps two hundred miles of driving in the course of twenty-four hours, or perhaps forty-eight...

“That short of a time?” I gasped.

“Things will 'start up' within two hours of your arrival in the port proper,” said the soft voice. “Things will get 'totally out of hand' within eight hours, and as you take more 'territory', the liberated zone is going to contribute more and more supplies to what you are doing, so much so that you only will have to actually 'take' certain places.”

“Including 'spy central',” I murmured. “That, and get the main interface site, that being at roughly the geographic center of their territory. Those two places will have to go down to make sure that mess stays down. We hit their networks, bring all of them down...”

And yet, somehow, I knew we'd do a lot more than that. The people in leadership would have one chance, and but one chance only – and after that was tried, it would be mostly a matter of just finding them and clearing them out.

Provided we did our jobs right, that one chance they'd have would be much closer to 'no chance at all'. If we came in with the networks up and running, then taking the place would be more or less impossible.

“The converse is even more true,” said the soft voice. “If you do a truly good job of taking down their networking equipment, get the readily-accessible interface people, and get 'spy central' – then they're on the ropes, and more, a lot of those blue-suited functionaries are then going to panic, which means they will swarm out into the main areas – and that apart from any drug-withdrawal situations that start occurring.”

“And if even one in ten people out there are armed with ranged weapons, then the floors of the place will be ankle-deep lakes of blood,” I muttered. I then saw our target. It was impossible to miss, even at this speed, and behind us, I could hear, this distinctly.

Faintly. It was growing louder, though, and that steadily.

“I can hear that engine,” I muttered. “He's got it 'turned up all the way' still.” Pause, then, “it's making this clanking noise, though.”

“If it is doing that, then either he must stop it quickly, or it will scatter itself,” said Sarah. “Every time I have heard an evil engine make that type of a noise...”

“Rod-knock,” I said. “The bearings have gone loose. It's about to spin one, I can feel it.”

“Spin...” Sarah was mystified.

“They usually quit when that happens,” I said. “That's a bad sign, especially if it's happening under load, as it does not get better with time. It only gets progressively worse, and I've heard of engines going up when their bearings go. Had more than one do that on me, in fact.”

As if to signal me that 'it was getting worse, and not wasting time doing so', I now audibly heard a rattling noise. Sarah turned to me, then said, “he's got perhaps a turn of a glass, if that. He either shuts his engine down now, and keeps himself in one piece, or his engine will scatter itself within a turn of a glass, as I know that sound.”

“Yes, but do you know this particular type of engine?” I asked. “For all we know, that thing might be like that one at the Abbey, and if you run those right, you can stay out of trouble with them.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “It is not like one in the mines.” Pause, then, “the same thing happens with Machalaat engines, and now you tell me it happens with other types, also. So, this one is likely to be similar.”

“Or worse yet,” I said. “Now does that wretch use plain bearings on his lower end, or does he use a built-up crankshaft?”

“The latter, as is usual for compression-ignition engines, which means that rattling noise may mean 'he's got seconds' or 'he's got hours' – and again, when depends on a host of factors, most of which interact, and but some of which he has some control over,” said the soft voice. “The way he's running that one, it may and may not wait until you put a rocket down his stack, as it may just decide to 'let go' before you get the chance – and his ship will go down like a rock, rocket or no rocket, if that engine goes.”

“Not going to need much time, then,” I said. “Dear, get ready with that rocket. I'm going to get about a mile out, then as you line up on that orange tank, light it off – and then I'm going to keep on our current course until the smoke hides us from that guy in the big smoky ship back there. I'll then turn left by feel and compass heading, and I'll slacken the sail completely once we've gotten the boat close to shore, as I can tell you're about due for a session behind a bush.”

“You're right, I am,” said Sarah. “We'll not wish to spend more time than I or anyone else on the boat needs, though, as this is still a very dangerous area, and we want to keep moving as much as we can until we settle that mess 'good and proper' down in the third kingdom.”

However, as I came closer to that one island and its long row of tanks, I began making comments about it – as in 'it was the best duty a spam could hope for', and 'the living conditions are as good as anyone who's from Norden can hope for', and finally, 'the food is plentiful and the work light, at least by Norden's standards'.

Sarah asked me how this was so, and I answered, “they're not like those spy-groups which are always on the move and half-starving more often than not, they keep regular hours with no witches handy to cause trouble, the water they fish in borders on 'grounding' killer fish – seems those need at least eight feet of water to feel comfortable, and the area they fish is shallower than that – so the most they have to worry about is salt-sores, and they don't get those terribly readily, for some reason.”

“No, mostly because those are due more to a parasite that is endemic to salt water that Norden's people are far more resistant to than those who are born and raised on the mainland,” said the soft voice. “It will become much less of an issue once Norden's done, as that location is the chief reservoir of that parasite.”

“Norden's done?” asked Sarah, as she loaded up a rocket.

“Yes, when that part of the war is successfully completed,” said the soft voice. “It will be, it's just mostly a question as to its cost right now – and I do not mean mere 'monetary' cost.” Pause, then, “tell those people where you will be going just who you saw, and how they are having dealings with those people, and they'll see both of them as hand in glove with one another.”

“Mostly because to some degree they are, and they support one another more than I want to admit, and that in all possible ways,” I said. “Now, dear, there's that orange tank. Our stern chaser is starting to catch up, as I'm suckering him in. Get ready...”

Not three seconds later, I heard the pop of the rocket launching. Sarah had snuck out the back side, and by the way that rocket was flying, it was going to score a direct hit on that fuel tank. I heard the faint crack as the rocket broke the sound barrier, then suddenly a massive white flash blotted out the entire tank farm, and a gouting mountain of smoke, this easily a mile high and half again as much more wide, spread out over the course of seconds as Sarah got back in and changed over the visors on the launcher. She put the one she'd used in its waterproof bag, then made the rocket launcher ready for me with the thermal recognition seeker head rocket loaded, and as I steered slightly east, the smoke began to roll across the water – still mountainous, still hundreds of yards high, but as for thickness – it was so thick that I knew that whoever was driving that ship chasing us was now more or less blind.

“Yes, for seeing or his other more-usual means of sensing where he is or where you are,” said the soft voice. “He has other ways of knowing where he is, and those still work, so he'll not go aground, and then he'll continue to pound his engine until either it goes on its own, or you cause it to go – and if you cause it to go, given its current status, it will go especially hard.”

“Especially hard,” I thought, as I began to slowly feel my way into the darkness that was now blotting out the sun. The whole island was now aflame, it adding vast clouds of thick gray smoke to the dark black stuff made by millions of gallons of tankage, and I asked, “how much fish were they catching?”

“More by the day, such that this area was beginning to become fished out, and they were needing those engines to get to where they could catch enough fish to make matters worthwhile,” said the soft voice. “Then, that 'winsome fish oil' that was in those tanks was just starting to get converted in quantity, but it had been accumulating since spring thaw up this way, which was several months ago – and finally, Norden had its own substantial supplies of fish oil in sewn oil-tanned animal skins, which they have been using for light for a very long time, so those got emptied into those tanks also. Ultima Thule has been listening to her Thinkers about light sources enough to wonder if the current means in use at Norden are good enough for many areas – her shipbuilding caverns chief among them.”

“Just full enough to have a lot of fumes so they'd explode hard,” I said, regarding that long row of fiercely blazing tanks. I was now heading around the island, as there was another one directly in my way, and as the boat emerged from the smoke, I would...

“No, just run it up into the shallows in this one small lagoon,” I said. “I can...”

“Not there,” said the soft voice. “One of the other ways that Norden's been catching more fish is setting up fishing camps on every island within a reasonable distance of the one that's now burning like a torch, and as you get between the two islands, you'll not only be ready to take your shot, but you'll also want to then run between the islands and get close to the shore and follow it until you're at least fifty miles further south – after first beaching the boat so Sarah and the others can use the privy without fear of those nasty fish you've named 'Goiters'. Then, you can get out into the area with wind, as then you will know what time it actually is.”

“Later than I thought it was, probably,” I murmured. It was actually early afternoon, and I needed to eat. A cup of beer, then turn the boat edge on, drop the sail, and then get ready.

I could feel that other boat, and as I saw its bow begin to emerge, I placed my hand on the tip of the missile, removed the cap, touched the very tip and then the region behind that portion, this being where it was 'set', saw the ship's 'stack' and then, somehow, I had fired the thing and was back inside the boat bringing up the sail.

It was a good thing, as we were catching arrows shot from the trees nearest the shoreline as we passed by it at an increasing speed, and as I moved out from the shore away from those... In the distance, I heard from behind me what sounded like a dull booming rumble.

A rumble that built over the course of perhaps half a second to a shattering roar like that of thunder, and as Sarah looked out the back door, “that's the end of that boat, as I can see fire coming above that smoke.”

“Its' end?” I asked.

“That engine tore the ship in half when it exploded,” said the soft voice, “and then the remaining fuel detonated, so that turned both halves into quick-sinking scrap-metal. That ship-leader was cut off in mid-scream when his boat exploded under him and disintegrated him as well.”

“So now we head toward the shore,” I said. “There's this one little inlet that I'm going to land about a mile north of, as there's something in that inlet that's going to want gunfire or a rocket, only somehow, I think we want to save our rockets for people or things that need them.”

“Why, what is it?” asked Sarah. I could tell she needed to go, and when the beach began to come up suddenly, I barely dropped the sail in time for the bows to pitch into the sand – and Sarah leaped over our mound of supplies and ran into the undergrowth with her machine pistol at the ready.

“Wake up, sleepers,” I murmured, as I 'kept security'. “Wake up. It's time to use the privy, one at a time, with the others watching the area like I am. Karl, Sepp, Gabriel?”

“Yes?” answered the latter. “Are we there yet?”

“No, but we are beached, so if you can use the privy, I suggest you do so, and be quick about it,” said Sarah, as she suddenly returned. “I just did, and I can feel witches somewhere around here, so we dare not remain long.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, as I leaped off the front of the boat and shot into the brush, rifle at the ready, while the three men followed me at a sleep-drugged pace. The undergrowth was thick enough for all of us to do our business quickly, however; but as I got up from going, I removed a grenade, found a rock, pulled the pin from the grenade, and then put the rock on top of it in the middle of an obvious path.

How I had missed it was a mystery beyond a very full bladder, and a need to dump a 'load' equally as badly. Still, I had seen the path after I used that one large knife to 'make a hole' to receive my leavings.

Like I had with Joost's brother, I made certain to put this bomb in the middle of a footprint – a one, one just made within the last two days, one made with a strange-looking 'clawed' boot of some kind, one that resembled a round-cornered squared board.

“Now shove,” yelled Sarah, as I got into the back of the boat and Gabriel got himself another dose of both tinctures, washing them down with a cup of beer. Karl and Sepp were doing the shoving, and as they got in and got back to the shelter where Sarah and I were sitting, she writing while I worked the sail-steering rudder and the main rudders, they both began paddling, while I drew back the sail to its former near-vertical position and began turning the tiller so as to head south. Not a hundred feet out from land, I began to catch enough breeze that we began to move, at first slowly, then faster – and by the time I was two hundred yards out from land, I was catching enough breeze that we were moving at an easy fifteen miles an hour.

“Further out, though,” I said, as I kept moving further out from land, all the while catching more breeze in the sail by adjusting its angle relative to the wind. “I want at least four hundred yards out from land for this part, as I'm going to shoot this thing.”

“What is it?” asked Sepp. “Is it a witch?”

“I'm not sure yet, but it is involved with witches, it's quite important, we need to document it carefully, and then we need to deny its use to the enemy,” I said. “Oh, also, it's not just used by Norden's people. It's used by local witches, and...”

An earshattering roar came from somewhere behind us, and the screams that resulted were but mingled with the crackle of things that sounded like a large package of 'monstrous' firecrackers and and a huge rapidly-progressing brushfire.

“What was that?” gasped Karl.

“I told you there were witches about,” said Sarah. “Now did you set a trap?” This last was addressed to me.

“Yes, a quick one, but it worked on Joost's brother, so chances are any witch that knows his curses is going to buy that one – and it seems one just did,” I murmured. “Now that happening like it did tells me plenty. Those people were on their way down the coast to this location, and... Oh, there's this headland here. Need to go around it.”

I did so, the wind falling off, but as I passed it, I dropped the sail entirely, then as we coasted, I noted a deep inlet, one overgrown with brush to each side. I pointed it out.

“Looks a bit artificial, doesn't it?” I said, picking up my rifle. I aimed straight into the 'most artificial' part, fired once – and the bloom of flame that suddenly erupted told me one thing, even as the flames consumed what was obviously a camouflage 'net' of some kind to show a Norden-ship.

I brought the sail up, and moved further out as the wind seemed to freshen, then as dull 'crump' noises continued, I drew out further from land, where the wind was stronger than closer to shore.

I wanted some distance between that boat and where we were, much as if it was filled with drippy witch-grade dynamite.

More crumping noises, then as Sarah peered out the back door, she said, her voice ominous and filled with dread, “I would hurry if I were you. That's no common Norden-ship, but an old one, and I've heard of what some witches do with those.”

“What?” I asked, as our speed picked up to twenty miles an hour, then twenty five, then thirty. Each further bit of distance was going to help when that thing went up, as we would then do some 'surfing', and I was really hoping we would not do 'wipe-out'.

The wind continued to pick up, and now, I was grabbing all of it I could, steering in as close as a straight line as I could, finding that close balance between best speed and shallowest water, when suddenly, from behind, a titanic flash erupted, and nearly instantly, the sail jerked and nearly tore. Sarah looked out the back of the boat, this through the door, then closed it and latched it. “I am glad you got what distance you did, as that thing made this big gray witch-table, and...”

“A nuclear weapon?” I gasped.

“No, just a lot of 'Norden-grade dynamite',” said the soft voice. “You got just barely enough distance between it and the boat to not suffer damage, and now, you're going to ride the wave for about a mile.”

'Ride the wave' was not a joke, and I figured that for a mile at least, we had an extra ten miles an hour worth of speed due to that 'wave' wrought by a huge explosion. Once it had gone past us, however, I came in closer to shore, as here, that shallow water would buy us safety.

“Not too shallow, though,” I thought. “There's a narrow line that gives the best combination of speed and safety when this close to shore, and that condition of safety from both enemies out to sea and land-based ones – and the ones I'm more worried about out this way are the land-based ones.”

“True, which is why once you travel southward another two hours at your current speed, it will be getting close to apparent dusk, and then you can move outward of the islands so as to get into the main shipping lane – and between now and then, while you have good light, I would have everyone save you, Sarah and Gabriel make up bombs for use against pirates, then work on those you will want for 'doing' the port.”

“I put those up already, at least the three round mines,” said Sarah. “Deborah and I did those, and we had plenty of help with those.”

“Rigged up and wired?” I asked. “Cap in the well, the wires twisted together, such that all that needs to happen is we just put them in front of the door and set them off? Satchel charges?”

While those things intended for the third kingdom port had been taken care of, dealing with pirates on our way south had seen little thought, or so I thought until Karl brought out this one smaller waterproof pouch. In it he had a mixture of 'metal pears' and 'Cyclohexanite training aides', though what Sepp brought out a minute later from his supplies was worse yet.

“How many of those things with the screws did you do?” I asked.

“As many as I had time for,” said Sepp. “I did at least twenty of them last night over those I already had, and I crimped and waxed twenty more caps and friction igniters, then I got some of that cooking fuel, covered the heads of the screws good with that, wrapped those things up tightly in rags, and tied those rags good with string.”

“They're capped and ready to go?” I gasped.

“No, I have this thing from Lukas,” he said. “It is like that tool you use to clear the hooves of a horse, only it is a bad copy of a good one, not one like you have, and then I had that one woman who's about as big as Sarah do something to it with a file so it makes holes like that one awl you have does.”

“So you poke the ball and stick in the cap, and tie it up just before we use them,” I said. “Better do that part now, as when we start going after pirates, there isn't going to be time for doing those things.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sepp. “I want to tie that fuse onto those things good, too, and then wrap them up with more rags with some of that grease on them, so those thugs will not know what they are.”

“Bigger fire, and more smoke, also,” I said. “Now with those, I can go by one of their boats close enough at speed in the darkness, you pull the string as I come up on it, you toss it as I go past its middle area, and it goes off as I get clear. Most likely, that will cause them trouble.”

“If they are carrying distillate, it will set them alight,” said Sarah. “That, or a metal pear. Now if you should fly, though, then I think you want to rise up just as you get even with their forward mast, as that is where the distillate is, and I can shoot into it.”

“No, that would blow us up,” said Sepp.

“Not if I shoot into it...” Sarah shook her head, then said, “no, I had best just shoot from a distance if we do that. If we are close, best toss a bomb of some kind so as to give us a chance to get clear before that stuff goes up.”

“Specially if it's that really stinky distillate,” I said. “Esther said it was cap-sensitive, so with that stuff, putting a training aide into their distillate will cause that ship to go up like it was filled full of dynamite.”

However, as we made our plans and readied our supplies, and I steered while Sarah either took notes or sightings and consulted her maps, I made some strange comments, this about the third ditch and how all of those people had had so many fused sticks of dynamite and a 'medium' grade of distillate – one neither light nor heavy, but in between the two. It was the best type for starting 'big hot fires' that ignited explosively. The crude stuff, that named 'exudate' by Sarah, did so also; but, it tended to burn a lot longer – and it also made the most smoke of anything that came out of a 'sump'.

“It makes sense, then,” said Sarah. “I can tell we're close to about as far south as home is now, as the sun looks normal for midafternoon.”

“Apparent dusk on the sea?” I asked.

“Is earlier than it is at home,” said Sarah. “It actually gets 'dim' quite a long time before it's indeed dark, and most ships furl their sails then, unless they are of a few that run during the night.” Pause, then, “though if you see a ship with a lot of people on it dressed in black, then you know what it is, and that whether it's running a black flag with a design on it or no flag at all.”

“Pirate?” I asked.

“That, or a witch-ship, one from the fifth kingdom, and those people act enough like pirates to suit me,” said Sarah. “I've seen what they do then, and the usual is to have those black-dressed stinkers do little save what witches usually do, while four or perhaps five people actually run their ships.”

“Slaves?” I asked. “Ragged clothing, and no hair on them?”

“I have wondered for a very long time, and that is the best answer I have heard yet,” said Sarah. “Now, there is something important about that ship from Norden that went up like a powder mill, and you mentioned how they had so much of that stuff at the third ditch. Are the two related?”

“I suspect they are, dear,” I said. “Those people from Norden either have their own powder mill, or they're being supplied with, uh, old outdated shell filling rocked and packaged like dynamite – a lot less sensitive, as they'd most likely scatter themselves with the usual stuff.”

“You're right, they would,” said Sarah. “So why would they use outdated shell filling and package it as dynamite...” Sarah looked at me, then said, “that's right. They're dumping all their old worn-out stuff up there, save when it helps achieve their goals to give Norden better things...”

“A lot more 'old' than 'worn-out', dear,” said the soft voice. “The usual for anything that's destined for Norden's use is that it's first gone through entirely to bring it up to 'new' levels of functioning and 'wear', then it's 'reworked so it's fit for trashed witches', and finally, it's 'overbuilt' so as to endure a lot of abuse – as it gets that in those people's hands. That's why that old shell filling is usually 'cut' with cheaper and less sensitive explosives and then mixed with waxy fuels and oxidizers so as to make an explosive that's as close to 'idiot-proof' as is possible – as while Ultima Thule thinks she understands her 'benefactors', those among them that correspond to her Thinkers understand her people far better still – and they think Norden's people to be superior 'cannon-fodder' if otherwise not terribly useful.”

“And then, what they have at Norden itself?” I asked. “Something about a cheap, insensitive explosive that, while it's not the strongest stuff to be had, is thought by their handlers to be 'good enough'?”

“Closer to a hotter species of small-arms propellant as to chemistry, actually, but it is cap-sensitive,” said the soft voice. “It injection-molds readily, so it's quite easy to make a peculiar type of bomb. You've heard of an 'emergency' explosive of a similar nature, and Norden has some facilities for making that material – though Ultima Thule has charged her 'Chemists' with making mining dynamite, and they are making a non-trivial level of progress, given the fact that more than one Thinker has spent some time in a fifth kingdom powder mill recently, one which made 'witch-grade dynamite' – and some of what was at the third ditch was dynamite made at Norden, even if it wasn't terribly good.”

“Bomb?” I asked.

“Yes, with a pull-type igniter, three layers of notched work-hardened medium carbon steel wire, with the whole assembly molded of a cheap species of plastic and then automatically assembled and then sealed with a glued-on lid. It's so simple to use that your typical tinned Spam can use it safely – relatively speaking, of course.” The soft voice was definitely inferring that 'life is especially cheap at Norden' and 'tinned spams tend to have trouble with things that complex'.

“Simple?” I asked.

“Unscrew the bottom of the handle, pull it until smoke comes out of it, then toss the whole thing like one of those stick-type grenades you've heard about, save those being made at Norden actually have decent blast and fair short-range fragmentation – about like a damp squib for blast and somewhat better levels of fragmentation, as that steel wire is near glass-hard and it's denser than the ceramic used in ink-globes.”

“That sounds bad enough to suit me,” said Sepp. “So, when will we start seeing those thugs tossing bombs?”

“They already do,” I spat. “They were tossing enough of them at the third ditch.”

“No, like this kind we just heard about,” said Sepp. “You give a capped stick of dynamite, or anything like it to one of those people, and he is as likely to eat it as he is to light it and toss it unless he has been shown what to do with it as if he were fit to wear three nested brass cones, but these other things sound about simple enough for those thugs to use them and cause trouble for us – and not blow themselves up terribly often while doing that.”

“Especially given that they're now using them during 'training' up at Norden,” said the soft voice. “Figure on seeing some of those within a few months, though Ultima Thule hopes to stockpile them for next year, so she will be most-sparing of them this summer.”

“Then why were there so many of those things at the third ditch?” I asked. “Both kinds – dynamite made up at Norden – perhaps as strong as farmer's dynamite, if that – and that other stuff?”

“Ultima Thule was more than a little overconfident about that group of people, and while their 'better' grade of thug generally knows what to do with such things if he's been taught at some length, the attrition rate during that instruction isn't even close to being a joke – and that's for those thugs which have the twin teeth markings, and also good weapons and 'tin', indicating they're potentially leadership material,” said the soft voice. “The ones that are on their first outings are not much smarter about such things than what Sepp implied.”

“Now, what else did we do when that one Norden-ship blew up?” I asked. Sarah was definitely listening, even as I followed the coastline. Simple enough to do – no compass needed, just stay between three and four hundred yards west from the coast, and keep an eye peeled for trouble – which, relatively speaking, was pretty thin in this area right now.

“Firstly, you got all of the west-side datramonium north of where you're heading,” said the soft voice. “That boat had the remainder of the dried material, and there wasn't much left, so there aren't too many functional Spams right now on the continental mass.”

“Those on the islands?” I asked.

“The greatest number of them are dead, dying, or wondering how they're going to get food, even if they still have plenty of datramonium,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – shooting that ship sealed up a major shipping route for witches of all kinds, as that ship was not merely a floating warehouse of sorts, but there were other well-hid warehouses of one kind or another in the area – and that ship, along with its contents, was commonly winched out of the way when they wished to pass into the lagoon it was hiding and get at what else was there, when coming by sea. Overland, similar story – one needed to know how to get through those heavily-trapped trees to get to the place, and not many domestic witches did – and none of Norden's, so it was the main 'commerce' place between the two on the west coast.”

“Was it there long?” I asked.

“Longer than you might think possible, as it was an unusual ship,” said the soft voice. “It was one of the first ships that Norden built that was capable of traveling across the northern channel by any means whatsoever, so while it needed rowing all the way here and it took two weeks of round-the-clock labor by a specially-picked group of those thugs, it was built with 'no' shortcuts, relatively speaking, unlike the current ones – but that one needed an entire year to make, not part of a month like they do now – and that period is steadily shrinking as more and more equipment is transferred up to Norden.”

“And then, of course, the local witches,” I said. “No fishermen in this area, because they had to worry about the place swarming with domestic witches, and then Norden's people, and finally, pirates and spies, so...”

“Fishermen, if they do their business this far north, either do it on the east side of the mouth of the Main, or they go west past the shipping lanes and further away from land,” said the soft voice. “This entire area, including where you are now traveling, is thought by such people to be the property of Norden, and they stay well clear of all of the islands until you get a lot further south. You can readily guess as to why.”

“Pirates, those people with the smoky ships, and Spams,” I spat. “No honest fisherman wants any of those people handy, not when he's trying to earn a living.”

“You left out one matter,” said the soft voice. “This area, at least for certain types of fish, until recently, was a prime fishing ground – and the nature of these fish is that by this time next year, it will once more be such a fishing ground, with most of the islands being the overnight bases of fishermen.”

“And until then?” I asked.

“Norden isn't going to do much fishing in this area now, not when their main fishing station is gone and many of the subsidiary ones will shortly have starving people on them,” said the soft voice. “That other location isn't going to get rebuilt, as it took them years to build it and they do not have years – and then, of course, there's what happens when that one Curse breaks.”

“What's that?” I asked, as I steered around a headland and saw a straight shot, one that was just too tempting to pass up. I set the sail for 'maximum drive' and the boat began to move, so much so that within moments, that 'straight shot' of nearly ten miles was covered, I had come to another headland – and then, for some reason, I looked out to sea.

Not eight hundred yards off was an obvious sailing vessel, and a single glance at the thing gave me the chills. I then saw it had no flag, and when Sarah looked through her rifle's 'scope, she spat, “that is a pirate, all right.”

“Up this far north?” I asked.

“He was probably heading to that one place,” said Sarah – who then fired.

The bang deafened me, but what happened to the ship was worse.

Something near its foremast went up in a massive ball of flame that then turned into a huge atomic-mushroom eruption of black smoke and red-yellow fire, and as I sailed on, the shockwave gave me no small difficulty so far as riding it out. Only when I had gone around another headland did it quit disturbing the water and wind.

“That's one less pirate,” said Sarah. “Now if there's one sailing up this way, there are likely to be more.” Pause, then, “now this...” She consulted her maps, then said, “good, we're about half way to the second kingdom port.”

“We are?” I asked.

“You're moving quite rapidly,” said Sarah. “No, you're not flying the boat, but you're moving fast enough that I can tell it might draw half its normal depth for its keels, so all you must worry about is your rudders dragging the bottom, that and keeping them coordinated – and this is fast enough where you need to do so, and it takes a light touch – and I have gone fast enough on this boat to speak of the matter, even if it was in the river.” Sarah then sighted on a landmark, and as she looked at the 'brass cube's' faintly glowing figures, she shook her head.

“How did you figure our speed using this tool?” she asked.

I talked her through the last stage of the process, then after talking her through the process twice more, she did so without me speaking of the matter – and this time got a 'believable' result. “Thirty-nine and four tenths miles in an hour's time. That's easily five times what a well-sailed ship manages.”

“Not in a straight line, and at these speeds, I'm most likely the only one who can handle it out on open water,” I said. “Now where is it we turn out and get out of these islands that are starting to make me wonder just which of them is hiding a trio of pirate ships?”

“Close to apparent dusk,” said Sarah. “So we were told, but if you can feel pirates nearby...”

“Get ready, dear,” I said. “Three of them, line astern, no further than maybe two hundred yards apart so they stay in touch readily, because they're as good as blind unless the sun is overhead. Hit the one furthest to the north, hit his distillate, and then the others will crash into him as he catches fire and then explodes.”

There was but one trouble: Sarah was not the only person shooting. Sepp and Karl were also, and when the first northbound ship went up in a huge ball of flame, Sarah stopped shooting, while the other two fired a few more rounds – until suddenly the second ship disintegrated in response to the first 'detonating' with a huge column of fire, while the third one received a mass of flaming rigging from number two. His sails went up like tinder, one piece of flaming rigging from his foremast fell onto the deck as his crew scrambled crazily – and he was instantly burning like a torch.

“That one's busy enough to leave us be,” said Sepp. “I had no idea those people were carrying so much distillate and dynamite.”

“Not sure how much of either, even if I know all of them were carrying some of each,” I said. “Sarah, or someone I've seen very recently, told me that if a ship is carrying distillate, it will usually be secured at the base of the most-forward mast – and those people had barrels of the stuff, not jugs, so that meant any flames close to it would cause a fire.”

Pause.

“If I go by the ships I've seen so far, none have had more than two masts, none more than perhaps eight sails, and none of them have come close to that one that had that evil engine for size, not even those last two pirate ships – and those were the largest ones I've seen so far that were carrying sail.”

“Those were large ships,” said Sarah. “Most ships that slide down the ways where they are built are between one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty feet long, as smaller than that size-range carries little cargo if it has an adequate crew, and larger takes more time to build and money to buy, and then larger ships need more money to operate,” said Sarah. “That size range I spoke of seems to work the best, based on those I have spoken to, and that size-range what slides down the ways the most in the fourth kingdom – which is where most ships worth the bother are built.”

“Do they slide ships in the second kingdom?” I asked.

“No, as if they slid one it would most likely sink before it floated an hour, and the third kingdom port isn't much better for building ships,” said Sarah, “even if the third kingdom does do a deal of business repairing ships and fitting them out, more than almost anywhere I know of – and their sliding places are busy.”

“The fifth kingdom?” I asked.

“They do slide ships, and they do stay afloat, though how they manage that is a mystery,” said Sarah. “They slide a lot of them, also, but I did learn enough from my times in that place and in the fourth kingdom that if a ship slides in the fifth kingdom's yards, it usually needs to be sailed somewhere else to be reworked to a degree so as to sail decently, and that as soon as it gets in the water. Only Norden's ships are much worse for workmanship, and not their newer ones, but one like that one that exploded.”

“Their newer ones?” I asked.

Those worry me,” said Sarah. “I've seen those things change more in the last three years than I could believe possible, and every time I've seen one recently it's been a better ship for sailing than the one before, and then the joinery seems to be improving steadily as well.”

Time 'marched' on, and when Sarah gave me a rest from sailing the boat, I found myself first eating and drinking as if famished, then using that rear platform at the back of the boat – and once back inside, I found myself collapsing in slumber as if clubbed to then awaken 'some time later'.

“Good that you got a nap, yawn,” said Sarah. “I think I might get one once we're south of that second kingdom port, unless you're going to try flying the boat then and we are to thin out a lot of ships.”

“Uh, apparent dusk?” I asked. I then pointed toward the east, and noted that the islands were now seeming to both become smaller and further apart. The last of them was about even with the second kingdom's port.

“I would take the tiller and start moving out now,” said Sarah. “It is very close, and if you get me a chance to consult my maps and take sightings, then I can tell where we are. I know you slept a bit more than an hour, if I go by what the sun did for moving.”

“It went down noticeably, correct?” I asked. “Did Karl and Sepp get ready with their bombs?”

“Yes, and they moved those bags so they can get to all we'll need in that port,” said Sarah, as I took the controls in a barely-contained maneuver that nearly had us doing a 'wipe-out'.

“You might go faster,” muttered Sepp, “but I can tell she's a good pilot, as she's not slow at all running this thing, and then she's been along this coast before, so she was going in a straight line when and where she could and using the islands for cover when they were to be had – and she wasn't hardly slowing at all for them.”

“Any more pirate ships?” I asked.

“Not that I could see, but I was not looking for them, but rather at what I was doing,” said Karl. “I was stuffing all of my magazines with ammunition once I got the bombs done, as if you get the boat to fly, I might just shoot at some of those smoky lanterns that witches like.”

“Best do that as we fly past them at a distance, Karl,” said Sarah. “If he flies over one, though, I'm going to drop something on those people, either that or hang on.”

“We all had best do that,” said Sepp. “Now you get your things ready, as the sun is dropping like a hot brick, and I can see lights to the south and west.”

“Those would be ships,” said Sarah, pointing at the northernmost of that long string of lights. “That's your course. I think you might wish to go due south then, as that's the strong-wind zone, and I suspect most of those ships have their sails furled, with perhaps one or two part-furled so they don't drift onto the shore.”

I did as Sarah spoke, but as I steered further away from land, I had to dodge more than one island, as these things blocked wind and I needed to keep the sail filled. The smaller ones, I could coast around without slowing much, but I was not inclined to tack much, and therefore I headed south-southwest for the most part, now heading between islands and using them for shields while still catching as much wind as I could.

However, as I came past one island, the half-dozen or so 'pulsating' lights I saw had me speak to one of the others, and within seconds, all three had fired several rounds – until suddenly one of the pulsating lights billowed flames, they climbed up into the rigging, and within seconds, the aft third of that ship was burning.

“Another pirate,” I said. “That size of fire usually means trouble, doesn't it?”

“I'll say,” said Sarah, as she fired a final round at that ship. The resulting eruption of fire spoke of her hitting the main cargo of distillate, wherever it actually was on that ship. “The two of you, you need to either toss bombs or shoot when we're closer, as I can hit their lights or cargoes much easier.”

“Yes, because you're a better shot,” said Sepp.

“Not just that,” I said. “That type of rifle was made for accuracy, with those like hers and what I have needing special fitting. Then, they have some really strange optics that permit closer aiming...”

“That was what I meant,” said Sarah. “They give you better night vision also, and then they tell you how much to lead your target, even at your current speed, so you don't need to have burned a lot of powder and lead shooting at wood pigeons and buzzards to be able to hit moving things.”

“Have you shot at wood-pigeons?” asked Karl.

“Yes, many times,” said Sarah. “They're generally not worth the bother to shoot, even if they are not squabs.”

“Each bird needs its own weight in powder and lead?” I asked.

“No,” said Sarah. “I've brought down many of those birds, and I rarely needed more than my gun held to drop at least one.” Pause, then, “they're still greasier than grain-glutted quolls during the middle of harvest, so they need boiling and then roasting if you don't want to get corked, and then they give one an odor that reminds me of witches, so the only times I had one for food after eating part of that first one was if it was do that or starve.”

“Then why did you shoot them?” asked Karl. I was still heading for open water, dodging islands, keeping the sail full as possible; and I had my hands full and my eyes were looking ahead and to each side in the fast-gathering gloom so as to avoid cracking up on the shallow bottom between many of these islands.

“Because many Public Houses would pay good prices for them, and I do not mean those which had witches or misers or supplicants for clientèle,” said Sarah. “A lot of people can eat those, same as many people can eat Vlai – and you may well have heard how I do around Vlai.”

“Yes, so you two know that isn't a food either of you wish to eat,” said Sepp. “I doubt I will ever eat it again, actually, as I can tell something is going to happen. What, I am not sure, but I'm going to get marked by the end of harvest this year – and I am sure of that.”

I could see but a handful more islands, and once I'd passed one particular large one, I knew that now I had 'open water'.

“Not in that one place where the wind is the strongest, though,” I said. “Got to get out further, out where that... My God! All of those ships, all of them with lights burning, and...”

“If it pulsates, it is a wick-lantern burning distillate, and if it's really bright and yellowish, then it's an Infernal lantern – and if you can get within a few hundred yards of those at your current speed, then it is likely I can hit one of those with but a few shots,” said Sarah. “I hope I will not become too sore from much shooting, at least until we get into that port.” Pause, then, “we will all become sore there.”

I kept to my south-southwest course however, and with each passing minute, the line of ships drew nearer, the islands drew further away to the east, and the wind grew stronger. The sail-rudder and the other rudders were interacting now, and as the line of craft grew closer to 'straight ahead, I adjusted the sail for maximum speed – or so I thought until I saw a plume of thick smoke to the southeast. It wasn't that far away. I could tell that much – that, and there was a lot of smoke, much as if a town the size of the first kingdom house was burning.

“That is the second kingdom port,” said Sarah. “Now for that, we shall wish to slow if possible, but it is too dark for me to write well.”

“Use a battery torch, turn it down all the way, and have Sepp hold it just above your ledger, with a yellow filter on the lens,” I said. “It will look like a bad tallow candle this far out, and if I stay away from those ships over there, they most likely are not going to notice if I continue moving and they're not looking for us.”

That was done, and when I 'dropped the sail' to the rear so as to bring our speed down to perhaps twenty miles an hour, I steered in somewhat closer to land. I still wished to stay at least a mile out from land, as those witch-crewed batteries might well see us otherwise, and I wanted to give the first of this long line of ships a wide berth also.

More, I could feel the state of many of those ships. Some were bound for this port with 'legitimate' cargoes, but those were rare.

Most of these ships had enough witch-gear in them to make them 'subject to disposal', and therefore, they would need to be dealt with. The chief question was 'how many of them did I want to do tonight', and comparatively speaking, which was more important: getting rid of the pirates and witch-shipments headed up to the first kingdom, or clearing out the third kingdom port.

“Both,” I thought. “Trouble is, they're both really important, but...”

“Clear out that third kingdom port, and the pirates have few places that are safe for them to go beyond the fifth kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and then those people across the sea, once liberated, will sink any such vessel they see – and they have ways of seeing inside of wooden-hulled ships readily, and they can tell what ships have at substantial ranges – and they'll not be even a little chary of shooting rockets at any such ship they see.”

“Metal-hulled ones, also,” I said. “Those ships may be staffed by 'proles', but those people are sober, hardworking, and have a lot of equipment...”

“No, they are not running witch-gear,” said the soft voice. “That's the big reason the leadership over there cannot just get new people to replace them – they've all needed to be schooled and trained for years before they see one of those craft. Then, that equipment requires a lot of repairs both at sea and in harbor, it needs well-trained and intelligent operation to get any information out of it that makes sense, and then any craft that is designed to submerge and then surface once more is a very different beast compared to one that's merely designed to stay afloat.”

“All volunteers for those things, then you had to do 'qualifications' – and that was for the commonplace duty,” I murmured, as Sarah took notes at what she saw as I 'moved silently' closer to a badly damaged port. “If you were keeping the engines going, though – different story entirely, and no, you could not run those boats like fetishes, not if you wanted to live very long.”

“Yes, and that place over there still has its share, either that or many fires are still burning,” said Sarah. “What do you see?”

“Fires, mostly, though a lot of them are roaring through those multiple-level basements a lot of those places have,” I said. “Now where is that really big witch-battery with its new just-brought-out rotten cannons? Here, you telescope-toting witch, look out here... Break out that thing, and let it go up hard.”

As if on cue, a sudden huge 'atomic' blast erupted, and as the massive wall of fire spread outward visibly – the shockwave from that telescope exploding was huge – I saw previously smoldering buildings now flying apart from something closer to the effect of a small nuclear weapon than anything else that could have one time been fired out of an artillery piece. The flickering white-tinted red and yellow flashes that then resulted washed over us like a nightmare, and I then let the sail go forward.

“Why..?” asked Sarah, as the boat gathered speed.

“No time for it, dear,” I said, as I now had to coordinate both the tiller and sail-rudder to get 'maximum drive'. “Those ships out to sea saw our shadow when that place went up like it did, and then it got their attention, and we can expect them to know 'someone is out there and we want them dead'.”

“True,” said the soft voice. “Now, thread yourself in among them, as then they'll be shooting at each other as much as at you, and that will permit you to cause maximum casualties with minimal risk to yourselves.”

“Uh, fly?” I asked.

“Yes, and do so in the manner suggested to you, and have the others tie themselves down as your speed builds. They're going to be tossing bombs for the most part, as you can figure any ship up this way running a light on deck that's at all brighter than a bad tallow candle is up to no good.”

“Not much of one in the pilot house,” I said, as the boat now began to 'get light' and the others began to wedge their feet under the first row of bags, all of them with satchels filled with bombs of one kind or another in their hands. The boat was about to take wing, and while we were moving too rapidly to be readily hit by cannon touched off with port-fires, we could catch hits from boarding muskets filled with loopers.

“Most of those people are not accustomed to shooting dark-colored wood-pigeons on a dark night,” said the soft voice, “and when you're flying, you're moving as fast as a wood pigeon in a hurry.”

I was now ahead of the first boat, this one showing bow lights that pulsated, and I pulled up to the left of him, the boat now nearly four feet above the surface of the water. As we drew closer, I gaged his deck height better, then as we passed his stern, I leaned back, caught another eight feet, then cranked it over hard with sail and rudders, and someone pitched something over the side as I then straightened out and banked hard and down to the left as gunfire blasted wildly in our wake. I'd barely got back down to the 'ground effect level' when a sudden flash lit up the night behind us, then flames climbed high into the sky like a massive bonfire.

“Who tossed what?” I squeaked.

“I did, and I think that was a metal pear, if I go how it felt in my hand before I tossed it,” said Sarah. “I think if you cross that way, then I should toss, but if you go the other, then Sepp. Karl is helping the one tossing stay put, and I hope this nonsense finishes up before our legs become dead to the world.”

“It will, dear, as we're going to be in that port within three hours at this speed,” I said, as I went slightly wide, then suddenly turned, banking hard enough that the left rudder nearly dragged its tip in the water, then flew straight with wind to my back, this now fast enough to make the wind scream like a siren in my ears, and as I shot over the deck crosswise of a ship, someone – who, I knew not – threw a bomb at the pilot house. The thing was spewing sparks as I came down, diving, turning hard right, then angling the sail and shooting due south again in the fast-gathering darkness.

It was now 'night', and as I drew ahead at a speed that made for a slow-building shriek in my ears, a speed I recognized as 'this is as fast as I've ever gone before', I felt rather than saw a massive bloom of light come from behind, then as I drew my path along side of another boat, I said to the others, my voice shrill and cutting, “this one, shoot at the distillate. I'm going to pass it at two hundred yards. Get ready with your rifle, Sarah – aim... Fire!”

I had gotten level with the foremast, popping up near the stern, then as a steady stream of 'hot red tracer' lanced out, it seemed that Sarah was not just going after the distillate.

She was shooting everything that looked flammable, and as I began to drop the boat down into 'ground effect', the flames were burning so tall and bright that I knew it left shadows to each side and caused those to our south to be night-blind if they looked to the north.

“Skip the next two, as neither one of these people's carrying much of anything except fishing equipment and dried fish,” I said. “Don't want to be even close to predictable, as... Yes, they are signaling. Dear, if you can, try to hit that signal light.”

A sudden crack, then another, then a third – and the light did not go out. Instead, it bloomed brilliant and white-hot, its fireball erupting nearly as high as the rear mast of the ship Sarah had aimed at, then as I shot between the two that I planned to ignore, I came upon another ship further out to sea, this one...

“Full-time pirate dead ahead,” I spat. “Going to rip right beside his gun-ports on his west side, and Sepp, toss something in there as I pass.”

I was as good as my word, and as I passed the first gun-port, I saw him toss something out of the corner of my eye. I could barely hear him speak, as I dove hard to the right and then doglegged, this to give us an added two hundred yards of room, as he'd not just tossed one of his 'screwballs' inside the gun-deck.

That bomb had landed on or near a partial box of drippy mining dynamite, and when I'd gone perhaps another hundred yards past the bow of the boat, the shockwave from that craft's destruction nearly dumped the boat in the water.

“That was a close one,” I spat, as I shot between two boats perhaps four hundred yards apart and let Sarah shoot their distillate at a range of perhaps two hundred yards, first to the left with Karl and Sepp laying flat, then to her right. Those fires grew so fiercely and to such a magnitude that I dove for the water and pulled out just in time, now trusting in raw speed and trickiness, as when those boats exploded, their convolved blast once more nearly dumped us into the water.

“No more boats for a few miles, people,” I said. “I nearly soiled my underclothing with that last one.”

“No nearly about me,” said Karl. “I have damp stuff, but no dung, and I am glad I got that out when you beached the boat earlier.”

“Same here,” said Sarah. “Now, I think I would rather endure a sore shoulder than be blown up, so I'm going to try to shoot their distillate if they are hauling more than a small amount, or any signal lights...”

“There's one, right there,” I yelled, as somehow I did a wall-climbing maneuver that had us flying over the stern of a ship, this one more or less blacked out until he'd started signaling to his south, and when I ducked down, someone loosed a burst from a machine-pistol that started a huge fire on that ship, one that grew relatively slowly – at least until I got a few hundred yards ahead of its bow.

It then exploded so hard that our sail nearly tore, and I asked who had shot at the signaler.

“I did, though it was one-handed,” said Sepp, “and I'm lucky I hit that lantern. I know I got the man using it, and that stinker was glowing red like a bad witch.”

“So they will now be tricky, and they seem to be getting wise to us,” I said. “Seems we'd best deal with them at range for a while. I'm going further out to sea, as...”

“Yes, you want to do that, as they will not expect it, and then you will be on the water, and not flying,” said Sarah. She then thought to look to our rear.

“I have no idea how fast you were going,” she said, as I angled further west in the 'main sea lane', “but I think you went a good third of the distance from the second kingdom port to the third, and you did it so quickly I had no idea it was possible to travel that fast.”

“Faster than a wood-pigeon?” I asked, as the boat began to gradually settle. It seemed inclined to fly for a while yet, though it was just barely airborne now. No longer was it flying 'well over a hundred miles an hour', even if it was moving fast enough to not touch down.

At least, it took a while longer to touch down, which it did when I got out over a mile further west from what was obviously a long line of ships. “Let those people coming up here thin out the pirates.”

“You got the worst ones already,” said the soft voice. “Those that remain – all part-timers; you got every full-timer – are going to be much less inclined toward piracy, even if they are still going to ship witch-loads of distillate and other supplies given a sufficient price for doing so.”

“Sufficient price?” I asked.

“Figure that when they see that where such cargo was to go is now more or less wrecked, and in the process of getting there, find all of that floating charred wreckage, a lot of those people are going to give anything that looks like piracy second, third, and fourth thoughts – at least until those boats start coming up here and shooting anything with sails that doesn't clearly identify itself as not being a pirate,” said the soft voice. “They'll either sup with Brimstone quickly, or give up on the matter entirely and 'go fish' – which while it pays poorly compared to hauling witch-cargoes or piracy, it tends to pay steadily – and more, one usually lives long enough to actually enjoy the relative 'pittance' one does earn.”

“So we got their northern port, the second kingdom port is trashed, the worst pirates and witch-ships are sunk, and now we're going to clean house in the third kingdom port,” I said. “Going to be very unwise to be a pirate after tonight.”

“It has already become unwise in the minds of about half of those part-time pirates that yet engage in it, and those that don't think that currently are going to have another thing coming inside of a month.”

“A m-month?” I asked, as the boat continued heading south rapidly at a steady speed. Here, the three 'passengers', using turned-down tent-lanterns, began arraying their supplies for the third kingdom port. After a short time, however, Sarah took over once the sail was 'dropped' enough to move forward at a steady speed without making the boat 'tricky' to handle – which was still moving 'rapidly' compared to anything else I'd seen on the water, if I went by the wind on my face. I began using the telescope, now no longer needing dark goggles, merely the 'usual' ones for daytime use that kept the wind and 'grit' endemic in the first kingdom out of my eyes.

“Look for a bright fire to the southeast somewhere,” she said. “It will be up high, easily as high as the tops of a ship's masts.”

“Yes, I see it,” I said. “Bright fire, dear – there are people tossing wood on that, and I can count them with this thing. Three of them tossing wood right now, and that's one big fire.”

“Get its angle if you can,” said Sarah. “We will wish surprise to take that place, which means hitting it from close in, much closer to shore than we are, and we will not have surprise if we wait much longer.”

“Then we wait until there's a wider gap, like this one about, uh, thirty miles or so ahead,” I said, as I took down the telescope from my eye and put it in its waterproof case, “and then I thread the boat through that spot while it's flying, and then I touch down about four hundred yards out from shore and turn south again, though I may try turning while still airborne so as to 'land' heading south and achieve better speed and surprise that way, as if those boats signal to each other heading south, then they might well tell someone watching in that port or that place near it.”

“You might fly this thing, but I can steer it at this speed,” said Sarah. “It is tiring, so I am glad that we'll be able to rest once we're in that port, at least for the rest of the night.”

“With a guard mounted, one person awake at a time,” I said. “Everyone sleeps with their rifles in their hands, loaded and ready to go, and otherwise... Otherwise, we'll just wait until someone comes to fetch us in the morning when the sun comes up. It rises later down here compared to home right now, doesn't it?”

“About now, not much,” said Sarah. “High Summer, yes, about two hours' worth, but now, perhaps half of that.”

With the sail back 'up', the wind was now enough to get us into the region where both 'rudders' interacted to a marked degree, and when I saw the edge of that gap open, I began to turn into it, adjusting sail for 'maximum drive' the whole time. Within perhaps fifteen seconds, the boat lifted off, then as I went due east, the wind at my back, Sarah fired three times at this one boat, one with a huge light on its bow.

The light disintegrated in a huge flash of flame, and as I began a slow turn to the south, I saw clearly where we were.

Perhaps another hundred miles to go, though at our current speed, how long that would take would be a mystery. I was still angling toward slowly toward the shoreline, but due to its more-even nature, I found that I might well go in closer than the few hundred yards I had managed earlier.

I instantly knew that wasn't wise, as there was this one sizable headland, one big enough to block our wind, just ahead of the third kingdom port, and while this headland acted much like a breakwater, there was one of those also.

More, once one got down that far, the wind would either be hard enough to not wish to try sailing into port – meaning our sail would need downing and bagging then – or we would need to drop it as far back as possible.

“No, down and bag it, as that way it cannot flap, and we can paddle in slowly,” I thought. “The place will be getting its' wick trimmed for an evening's carouse about the time we get there, and then matters are going to be hot indeed for a while.”

“Yes, if 'a while' is 'the time it takes to count to a hundred if you work at it',” said the soft voice. “More, you do want to use paddles, and more, you want to wake Gabriel up while you take down the sail – as he's going to need to man a paddle, then do his portion with Karl dealing with the drink-houses.”

“And then he's really going to see the hare,” I muttered. “Good practice for all of us, as we will be dealing with hundreds of thugs...”

“Yes, in a few places, perhaps as few as two or three overseas,” said the soft voice. “Most of the time, you're going to be finding where the leadership is hiding itself, liberating supplies for the 'commons', or 'cracking' their equipment further; while when you-all go to take one of their locations, it's going to be a lot like what you're going to do shortly – get in, shoot the place up, blow up anything that looks likely, and then get out – and all of it done as quickly as is possible.”

“Five minutes tops?” I asked.

“Yes, if you speak of 'spy central' or the bigger places, or one or two of their other locations if you happen to find them,” said the soft voice. “Most of the places that you take are going to take about as long as this port will, and done in a similar fashion, save the ranges are going to be much less as a rule.”

“And then a swarm of armed 'citizens' are going to be coming in our wake, spray-painting the walls all these weird colors, liberating every vehicle they can...” I thought.

“More than that, once you get into one of their supply-places,” said the soft voice. “Get lucky and find automatic weapons, and then you're going to see in real life what you've only read about before seeing it done over there.”

“What, those, uh, truck-based things?” I asked. “Swarms of them, even?”

“Not just any 'truck-based things', not when they've refitted those vehicles with up-to-date hardware. They'll actually have 'decent' speed then, as their current speed – or lack of it – is due to a combination of very poor maintenance and speed limiting hardware, not due to raw capacity.”

“Then again, they were originally designed to haul heavy loads all day long,” I thought, “so if all you have are a few people on the rear platform and don't mind charging up periodically, and then ditch the 'governors', then you most likely can go about twice the normal speed of those things.”

“No, not that fast, as that would need a partial redesign as well as a lot more work than just putting in new batteries and replacing the control panel,” said the soft voice. “They will, however, move fast enough that most people over there will need some time to get used to them.”

“Hopefully not weeks,” I murmured, as the boat finally touched down, then began its steady 'run-out', this at a speed where it was barely skimming the surface of the water.

There was no moon. More, while there were stars visible, they were very murky, and when I glanced up, I noted why.

“Cloud cover,” I spat. “We're going to... No, that place is going to be lit up good.”

“Much better than 'good',” said the soft voice. “If you see any unusually bright lights, shoot those first, as the smoke, fires, and confusion that result, as well as the explosions – all of those will just make your job easier.”

“My job?” I asked.

“Keeping those massing witches from interfering with blowing the three drink-houses,” said the soft voice. “There's a good reason that broom was packed, and there's a better-yet one that Sarah's gotten it out.” Pause, then, “you will need it – and don't be at all shy about asking for strange ammunition for that thing. It can save your lives when there's a huge mob coming up the Long Wharf.”

“Meaning doing the port is more or less as bad as it's likely to be overseas,” I asked. Each minute thus delayed was something, that in a way, was scaring me worse than fighting Iggy.

“No, it will not be like fighting that lizard,” said the soft voice. “What these people have for an advantage is numbers. They are not well-armed, nor particularly well-trained – and they are mostly going to be drunk, and more than a few of them have just learned about those new pills.”

“They will be trouble, then, as they will be like those blue-suited thugs,” said Sarah.

“No, not close,” said the soft voice. “With them it isn't 'one to five' – as in those people you dealt with in that house were each worth five commonplace blue-suited thugs overseas.” Pause, then, “those people may well be taking a drug or drugs that removes all common sense and most of their intelligence, but they have a fair number of strengths to compensate for much of their lacks – and they're well-trained to both use those strengths and minimize exposing their weaknesses. In comparison, all these people have, for the most part, is 'they're really drunk' and 'there are a lot of them'. No clubs, no superior hiding ability, they have some common sense, they will be terrified once the broom starts to work on them, and then...”

I then had an idea that was so strange that only when Sarah looked at me with shock did I not dismiss it out of hand.

“Scream like Smoke,” I said. “Here comes the big kitty, and he's onto you.”

“But one that alert them?” asked Sepp.

“Yes, and it will frighten them completely out of their minds,” said the soft voice. “When you go up against those kind of numbers, especially thugs who are going to not follow any rules save one were the situation reversed, then go for any and all advantages you can get – and hearing a Tigris is in the area and is hunting – that is about the last thing any witch on the planet right now wishes to hear.”

“Yes, I know,” said Sarah. “They do know about those dark gray cats in that port, as those tend to travel some, and a lot of those people probably get down into where they are relatively common, that being in that market town.”

“No, dear, not one of those,” said the soft voice. “Those may be large enough, and fast enough, and elusive enough, and lethal enough – but no, they do not sound like the Tigris of old.” Pause, then, “he does, and he was given that capacity for a reason.”

“Terror,” I spat. “Terror is the way to run witches.”

“Straight into the harbor, in fact, and 'Goiter' likes that place,” said the soft voice. “He's quite common in there, in fact, so much so that any one who 'splashes' is thought to be protected if he lives long enough to scream twice as 'Goiter's' tribe gets onto him.”