Out of Lightspeed

A loud ding echoed through the ship’s intercoms, indicating an announcement from the onboard computer. “Imminent collision detected. Dropping out of lightspeed.”

Ashe flung herself from her bunk. She grabbed her jumpsuit from the back of her chair as she rushed towards the cockpit. “Why’d we drop out?”

“Imminent collision detected.”

“Yeah, I heard you. Tell me why. Run a scan.” The cockpit door slid open. Ashe tugged on the suit and jumped into the control seat.


Ashe checked the route. She was nearly halfway through her trip. With the hauler being thrown out of its faster-than-light course, she’d need to plot a new route with at least one stop to realign.

“Scan complete. Three targets approaching.”

For a moment she thought they might be asteroids, but knew better when the movement indicators started swirling on the viewscreen. They wove around each other in tight circles, a favored approach tactic for a squadron of light craft to avoid taking fire in formation. Her hauler had light cannons, but Ashe wouldn’t be able to scrap three zippy ships before being torn apart herself.

“Where’s the nearest Guild location?”

“Outpost 372 on Fascillum. Two hours and seven minutes away at lightspeed.”

“Plot it.” She watched the course generate. She’d be intercepted before the engines were ready to engage again. “Damn. Anything else nearby?”

“Pariah Corporation Fueling Depot. Sixteen minutes away at lightspeed.”

Ashe grunted. There was no time for a distress call, either. She couldn’t outrun fast little fighters for long in a cargo hauler. Even if she managed to run, there was no guarantee anyone nearby would respond to her distress call, and her pursuers would surely hear it first. “Okay. Plot a course for the fuel station. Get the lightspeed engines primed for a jump when we’re aligned. Keep a full scan running, I need details on those ships.”

“Course ready. Engines priming. Scan–“

“Silent mode. Put the details on the viewer when you’ve got them.” Ashe took a deep breath. They had to be pirates, or something of the sort. The hauler was equipped with a sensor package to identify security, police, and military vessels. These were none of the above, and they were closing in with the haste of a squadron out for blood.

Another ding in the cockpit indicated that she was being hailed. Ashe sighed with relief. At least they weren’t the type to shoot first and loot the wreckage. She flipped the comm switch. “Courier’s Guild hauler 262966 responding to your hail.”

“Stay where you are and keep the comm open. If you run, you die. Got it?”

The voice was male with an ordinary core-world accent. “In accordance with Guild policy–”

“No legal jargon. Say you got it or you’re dead.”

“Okay, got it.”

“Anyone else in there? Looks like a one-crew, but I don’t like surprises.”

“It’s just me.” The ships had come close enough for the scan to get more information. Readouts popped up on the viewscreen. Two of the craft were light fighters flying below their top speed to keep pace with the third ship. The fighters were outdated, probably acquired after some small-time planetary dispute had blown over. The other ship was something else entirely. It was a doofer, short for a do-it-yourselfer, a ship that was built from the parts of other ships. Like most doofers, it was a mess; this one was the soaring remnants of at least seven other ships. The doofer was bigger than the fighters but still a fairly small craft.

“Hey, you catch the fight?”


“The fight? From the Savage Coalition? Typhoon Hansen and Liza Maccuddoch. Supposed to be the biggest duel of the year. Typhoon has these crazy burning knives and Mac’s new shieldsuit is ridiculous. We’re too far out to get the stream yet. Savage streams from Hareldon, so I thought it might’ve reached you back before you hit the jump.”

They know where I started the faster-than-light jump. If they know where I went into lightspeed, they must know the whole course. They want something specific. Ashe struggled to keep up with her thoughts. “Uh… no.” She stumbled through the words. “Sorry. I’m not into bloodsports.” There must be something valuable in the hold. She pulled up the cargo manifest and started scrolling through, searching for anything odd.

“Shit. I wanted a hint. We’ve got a betting pool going. Okay, listen, here’s how it’s gonna go. We’re gonna board you. We watch you and look through the stuff you’re hauling. If you’ve got what we want, we take it, we leave. All nice and friendly. You won’t see our faces and our voices will be scrambled. Including this one. Not my real voice. Sounds good, though, right?”

Ashe paused awkwardly as he stopped talking, distracted by the manifest. “Sure?”

“Be honest. Always be honest with me, lady.”

“You sound fine.”

“Good. It was a total pain in the ass to configure. Anyway, you don’t know who we are, so we can let you go when we’re done.” Not likely, she thought. If she was carrying something valuable they wouldn’t take the chance. They’d probably kill her and chop up the hauler to expand their doofer. “You won’t get any heat from the Guild for letting us take something. Matter of fact, they’ll probably be thrilled with you for being so coolheaded under pressure and getting away alive. Or… hell, you know what? I’ll even let you fire off a few blasts with those peashooters you’ve got as we approach so you can be a real hero. Did your best to fight off the pirate menace and lived to tell the tale. I need to test the new armor on this thing anyway.”

“No thanks. I’d rather comply peacefully.”

“Really? Shit, you might’ve gotten promoted. Okay, well, fine. That’s the deal. Go ahead and prep your airlock.”

There! Everything looked normal, but she was carrying three packages with unlisted destinations. Unlisted boxes are always tagged lost upon arrival. Lost packages just sit in the nearest sorting facility until someone shows up to claim their item. Whatever the pirates were after was almost certainly something in one of those.

“Lady? You’re not paying attention.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’m a little shaken up.”

“Calm down. I just told you, it’s all gonna be fine. Real friendly, no violence. You stay peaceful, we stay peaceful. You’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s not our first rodeo.”

“It’s mine.”

The voice laughed. “Hopefully your last, too.” He paused. “Oh, fuck, that came out wrong. Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound threatening. I just meant, you know, we part ways as friendly acquaintances who never want to meet again.”

“I know what you meant.”

“Sorry. Part of my job here is talking you through this. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s fine. I’m not worried.”

“Okay. Thanks. Open up your attachment ports and get your airlock ready, we’ll lock the hoopty up and come on in. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“See you in a few.”

The comm ended. “Silent mode off.” Ashe leapt out of her chair and ran back towards the hold. “Pull all boxes with unlisted destinations right now. Stack them at the front of the hold. Open attachment ports, prepare airlock pressurization.”

“Retrieving packages.” The cargo hold was equipped with a number of actuated arms which zipped around the walls and shelves to sort the ship’s cargo. By the time she entered the bay the boxes were neatly placed near the door. “Mutual docking prodecure engaged. Airlock pressurizing.”

Ashe grabbed the stack and ran back to the cockpit. The airlock opened as she got back into the control seat. “Lock down the cockpit. Lock down everything except the path from the airlock to the cargo bay. Open global intercom.”

“Partial lockdown engaged. Global intercom open.”

“Welcome aboard,” Ashe said. “The intercom’s active. I can hear you if you talk.”

“Nice ship you’ve got here, lady.” It was the same man. “I think you’d better come greet us in person.”

“I feel safer in the cockpit. No offense intended.” She grabbed a knife from her toolbox and started opening the boxes.

“We’d feel safer watching you.”

Ashe cut through the tape of a box as quietly as she could manage. “The cargo bay’s open. You can look through it. I just don’t want a gun to my head after that ‘last rodeo’ thing.”

Fuck. I really am sorry about that.” It was a red leather jacket, vacuum sealed in a bag. She tossed it aside. “Listen, I promise, you’re gonna walk away from this just fine. We just need to make sure you’re not trying to kill us.”

“I’m not. Feel free to do what you have to do in there.” She opened the next box.

“The hard way, then. Get out here or we’ll cut our way into your cockpit.” It was a wafflemaker in a box of its own. “Won’t take long. We brought plasmacutters.” Ashe tore through its box to be sure. It really was just a wafflemaker. It got tossed into the corner with the jacket. “Come out right now and there’s no harm done. Stay in there and you’re gonna end up getting hurt.” She heard the cutters in the background. They were already on their way.

“Okay. I’ll stop the lockdown. Intercom off.”

“Global intercom closed.”

Ashe ripped through the last box. Bingo. A datacard. She heard the cutters making progress and grabbed a small cutter of her own. “Unlock everything except the cockpit door.”

“Partial lockdown disengaged.”

It was less than a minute before she heard a knock against the metal. “Hey, now. You still have to come out. Last chance.”

Ashe lit her cutter and pressed a button on the control board to open the door. There were three of them, clad in jet black suits which covered their whole bodies. Their helmets were black, too; angular and polished to a sheen. They all had pistols at their sides. Ashe held the cutter to the datacard. “You all get off my ship right now or I burn this thing to ashes.”

The pirate in front cocked his head to the side. “The fuck are you talking about?” The other two glanced at each other.

“I’ll burn it.”

“Lady, we don’t want… whatever that is.”

“Don’t play games. I’ll do it.”

The pirate shrugged. “Okay. Burn it.”

Ashe hesitated. “I will.”

“Burn the damn thing so we can get on with this.”

“You really aren’t here for this? What the hell are you here for?”

“Lady, the less you know–”

“Boss,” another of the suits chimed in, “it’s right there.”

He pointed. Ashe looked. The corner.

“Ho-ly shit.” The leader slowly crouched and stared at the discarded items. “Yeah, that’s it.”

“You want… that junk?”

“Yeah. Get in the other corner nice and easy, lady.”

Ashe dove to the floor, holding her handheld cutter to the pile. “Get off my ship.”

Whoa! Fuck, hey, whoa, okay, stop. Don’t damage it!”

“You heard me. Get off my ship. I’m taking this stuff to the sorting facility, whatever it is.”

“Okay. Hang on. Relax. We need that. It’s why we’re here. You really don’t know what it is?”

“A wafflemaker and a jacket?”

“Just the jacket. You can keep the other thing. You figured out it was sent without an address on purpose, huh? Pretty smart, lady. We got a tip-off about it. We need it.”

“What is it?”

“Seriously, the less you know–”

Ashe turned the cutter on.

Fuck! Stop, damn it. It’s an old Earth antique, okay? Really ancient. Pressure-sealed to keep it as near-mint as possible. It’s valuable. Very valuable. Look, let’s make a deal. I’ll give you fifty thousand credits for it right now.”

“What stops you from killing me the second you pay me?”

“I promise, I won’t. I just want the jacket.”

“No deal. Your word’s worth nothing. That money would make me complicit in your crime, anyway.”

“Shit.” The leader rubbed at his face, as if he forgot he was wearing a helmet. “Okay. New deal. I’ll take off my helmet, my gun, my gear. These guys take my stuff, get back in the doofer, and our fleet escorts you to that little fuel stop you charted towards. I stay on board. You give me the jacket and I’ll go into the depot’s convenience store to wait for my gang when we land. If we blew up your ship there all of their security cameras would see it. We’d be screwed. Look, you want to live, I want that jacket. This is the only way we both get what we want.”

Ashe thought about it. “You give them everything you’ve got. They fly away and don’t follow me for at least an hour. They can trail us afterwards. You get locked up in a closet until we land. Then you leave with the jacket. If anyone at the Guild ever finds out about this, I’ll say you hijacked the ship, took my information, and threatened to kill me and everyone I know if I told anyone. And you have to tell me what this thing really is.”

“Done.” He took off his helmet and started removing his gear. He was younger than Ashe had expected. “Ever heard of Michael Jackson?” His voice had changed. It was more tinny and anxious than before.

“Some famous singer from Old Earth, right?”

“Yeah. That jacket was his. It’s iconic. Have you heard Thriller?”

“I’m not really into classical music.”

“Too bad. It’s great, way better than that nu-synthojam shit everyone likes now.” He tossed his stuff to the other pirates. “Get back to the ship and get out of here. You heard the lady, at least an hour behind. Got it?”

“Sure, boss.”

“Boss, you gonna be okay?”

“Of course I am. Get out of here.” He watched his underlings leave. “So, can I see it?”

“No. It’s not yours until we land.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, new orders. Run a systemized lockdown while our guests are on their way out. Close every door behind them. As soon as they’re detached, jump to lightspeed. Get us to that fuel depot. Confirm commands the short way, please.”

“Commands confirmed.”

Ashe sighed. “How much are you gonna sell it for, anyway?”

“Sell it? Are you crazy? That was Michael’s jacket. I’m going to wear it.”

It didn’t take long to lock the kid up once his friends had left. Ashe plopped back into the control seat. I nearly died over a fucking jacket.

“Hey,” she said, “do we have any Michael Jackson in the onboard library?”

“Michael Jackson not detected.”

“Download some when you get a chance, next time we’re out of lightspeed.”

“Michael Jackson discography added to download queue.”

“How long until we hit that fuel stop?”

“Pariah Corporation Fueling Depot. Eight minutes away.”

“Refuel when we get there. Use the Guild account. Oh, and do me a favor. See if they sell waffle mix.”

Out of Lightspeed by Ethan Hedman

Letters From the Late King

The solemn tone of the great horn echoes through the city walls, signaling the passing of King Aldamus II. Nobles gather in the court to await the crowning of his heir. Commoners whisper wild gossip about their king-to-be, hoping to steal a glance of the young ruler during his customary ride through the capital. Before the occasion can take place, all are kept waiting while the late king’s final wishes are fulfilled.

Aldamus II’s will is the shortest in the kingdom’s history. It proclaims that four letters are to be delivered at once to the members of the royal family, carried by the late king’s most trusted servants and elite soldiers from his guard. The contents of these letters are not to be discussed, and the letters themselves are to be burned after each recipient declares themselves to have finished. Any interference with the delivery of these letters will be forcibly quelled, without exception.

The servants set to their tasks at once, each delivering their letter to the appointed member of the royal family. What follows here is the best kept of secrets: a complete account of the late king’s lost words.

* * *

Aldamus, my firstborn son and heir,

I have ruled our land for decades, crushing invaders and rebellions alike. I have led our people through famines and plundered the dens of my rivals for their fortunes. These deeds have made me beloved. Yet these accomplishments are nothing at all when compared to the future I have gifted our kingdom with.

My time runs short. It pains me to leave you, your siblings, and your wonderful mother. I find comfort only in knowing that you shall rise in my place. You shall be a great king. You must be an even greater king than I.

Read these words well, son, for they shall soon be burned. I have written simple goodbyes to your siblings and mother on the same terms so as not to arouse suspicions. I chose the most loyal of my men to deliver your letter. Those who stand before you now will serve you well when I am gone.

Yet, as a king, you cannot trust. The nobles of the court will use my demise for their own ends, wishing to warp or limit your newfound power. Chief among these malcontents is Lord Bandric Robur, an ardent opponent of our monarchy. Beware all nobles, but beware Lord Robur most of all.

I advise you to speak carefully with each member of the court at some length. Declare these private conversations to be in the spirit of sowing the seeds of friendship among your newfound vassals. Assess them with great care. It is essential to determine who is loyal, who can be swayed, and who may soon rise as an enemy. In all cases, you should keep each Lord on the shortest leash they are capable of tolerating.

Pay little mind to the cries of common folk. The values of our kingdom would rot if they were left to their own devices. You must rule all of your subjects with clear vision and rapid action. Demand total loyalty and accept nothing less. Strong leadership will guide them through any difficulties they may come to face.

At the first opportunity–be it that of banditry, foreign agitation, or an uprising–you must prove your strength. Crush the first enemies who would dare to stand against you. In doing so, you will forge a reputation that shall be forever feared and respected.

You have made me as proud as any father could be. I leave this world in your hands.

* * *

Derren, my brilliant son,

Your presence in my life has been a remarkable gift. In life’s darkest moments, you’ve been a shining light. You’re quick to joke and sing if only to make me smile. I have needed you many times more than you could ever know. Thank you, my dear boy, for each and every treasured moment.

As I die, I need you more than ever before. I need you to take what I believe to be your rightful place. I need you to tear the rule of this land from your brother and seize power for yourself.

This will be no easy task. It is, without question, not legal. How I wish you had come first. Aldamus is my heir, and our ancient laws dictate that I cannot name another in his place. He shall be the king as long as he lives. Aldamus will rule with force, to be sure, but without a single drop of intellect. The true strength of our kingdom–strength that comes in clever, cautious rule–will crack beneath his steel gauntlet. I have no doubt that you know this already, but I tell you as your beloved father: you must take the throne from him, by any and all means necessary.

Observe the beginning of your brother’s rule with care. The nobles will not tolerate a king who seeks to oppress their rights for long, and Aldamus shall certainly take steps to do so. Lord Robur has never shied from speaking his mind against the monarchy and could prove to be a valuable ally. You would be an ideal compromise; a king, to be sure, but a friend to the court as well. Lord Robur’s knowledge of the nobles, their positions, and their desires is second to none. Use him.

Take care, however, when dealing with such men. Their lust for power rivals that of your brother. There must be give and take in negotiation, but you should not allow other clever men to outmaneuver you. Keep yourself ahead of every other man and make yourself essential to each figure in the realm who counts for something.

Do not forget: no matter what you must do, your means will always justify your ends. It was you who should have been first. You should have shared my name. I have faith that you will find a way to claim your rightful place. I know that you will rule with wisdom and make me very proud.

* * *

Illia, my beloved daughter,

It is with great pain that I must leave you, but I am comforted in knowing that you shall shed tears for my passing. My love for you is as deep as an ocean, and knowing that your love for me is just as true has warmed my heart since the first moment you spoke. You are my everything, sweet girl.

I have always indulged you in every way I was able. Now, for the first time, I must ask something in return. I must ask you to rule in my stead.

Aldamus is an arrogant fool who will amount to little more than a tyrant drunk on power. Derren is the least trustworthy man in the kingdom. A squabble for power is inevitable, and so long as either of your brothers sit upon the throne, our people will surely suffer.

There is cunning and intrigue in the court. You must keep a practiced and pleasant demeanor. I doubt this will be hard for you, as you have always shown friendship to all. But be wary of these people who consider themselves the betters of others. They will do anything they can to raise their own station without the slightest care of how it will affect those beneath them.

You must become a champion of the common people. Take up their causes as your own. Your brothers are sure to ignore their woes; the commonfolk sorely need the promise of a compassionate ruler. Become the voice that shouts to sate their hunger and cure their ailments. The people, when united, are unstoppable.

The time will come when one of your brothers will need to be dethroned. You will accomplish this with the will of the people. I ask you to take heart in knowing that you will do what you must for the good of each soul who makes their home in our domain.

You will be magnificent, and I am so sorry that I could not live to see your bright future. I love you, my sweet champion; now, forever, always.

* * *

Wife, whose name I cannot bear to write,

You have always asked for honesty in its entirety, and I have strived, whenever possible, to indulge you. The time for pure, brutal honesty has come. I shall bear my soul to you, here and now, as I lay passing into death.

I care for you deeply, make no mistake. All the same, I have at times regretfully resented your presence in my life. You were not the one I wanted when our marriage was arranged. There was another. I have never understood how you could so easily accept being given to a stranger. Even now–no, especially now–I cannot understand how you could ever have wanted me.

You are a wonderful mother. Your love for our children is unconditional. It is your very nature to love. I know that you still have love for me as you read these words, though I wish that you did not. I wish you had not married me. You deserved so much better than what I have amounted to. It may mean nothing now, but from the depths of my heart, I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and damnably sorry for what I must now do.

I have set our children against each other. I’ve contemplated this wretched plan for months, trying to convince myself that such a thing could bring nothing but misery. Alas, I know now that this must be done with my last twinge of life. My words will evoke the strength of Aldamus’ brutal ferocity, Derren’s sly tongue, and Illia’s loving heart. One of our children shall succeed in casting their siblings aside, and in the wake of their methods our kingdom will thrive with a king or queen reigning utterly unopposed. Our family’s suffering shall bring prosperity to the people. The realm will be secure for centuries.

I will not be present to see the coming fate of our land. I’m so sorry, my beloved, but neither shall you. Your love has made you the sole obstacle that could cripple this utopia in its infancy. You cannot be allowed to stop what I have put into place. Even if I had not confessed my vile scheme, you would have found a method to make peace between our children. I will not give you the opportunity.

When you have finished with the letter, you will be given a vial. You must drink willingly from this. It contains a painless poison that shall let you pass on peacefully. If you do not, my guards will force the substance down your throat. Your heart will be said to have stopped while reading this last farewell. Should you break the vial, you will meet with an unhappy accident; a much more painful fate than I would ever desire for you.

I have no words to express what I feel. An apology isn’t enough. It could never be nearly enough. Perhaps we will meet again in death, and you can take your righteous revenge. No, I know that your heart will conquer your hate. I hate that you can so easily conquer your hate.

I’m so very sorry, my dear. I regretfully await you.

Letters From the Late King by Ethan Hedman

His Cousin’s Tale

Two of my stories are out in one day! The first was Strands of Glory, published here on my metaphorical mothership, and can be found below (or in an accompanying email in your inbox, if you’re part of my eager mailing list crowd). The second is His Cousin’s Tale, a barside retelling of an ominous warning in a mysterious fantasy world. This one’s a bit of a love song to the wonderful atmosphere conjured up in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It can be found here, in today’s issue of Trembling With Fear, a weekly publication of dark short fiction on HorrorTree.com.

Succulent Triumph

Time for some exciting news! I’ve had a little bit of my work published elsewhere already (on 600 Second Saga and in Speculative 66, so my sixes were really stacking up), but those stories came out before my website was up and running. So I’m psyched to announce the debut of a little flash piece! It’s a brief fantasy tale titled Succulent Triumph, a story of revenge told in the form of a letter. It’s the featured letter of the month at Wax Seal Literary Magazine, a new online publication which offers short epistolary fiction on a monthly basis. Take a peek by clicking here!


Deep in the mountains, tired men mined for ore
Swinging their pickaxes, desperate to score
Veins of tough metals for engines of war
Downward they dug towards the land’s hardened core

During the quest a rich patch had been struck
The shimmering boulders were thoroughly stuck
But small, sparkling nuggets were carefully plucked
Assessing the lot, the group sang of their luck:

O Gods of the Mount, you’ve sent us a fine treat
This is just what we need to get back on our feet
Catapults and ballistas our foes’ll soon meet
We’ll make ’em pay twofold for our past defeats!

They sent for more workers to dislodge the haul
Who widened the tunnel upon which it sprawled
Plans were set in the stone and positions were scrawled
With hammers and chisels they started to brawl

Each solid blow spawned a light trickle of dust
Reinforcements arrived, well-equipped and robust
More rubble flew past as they ruptured the crust
Heaps of ore in sight, the men slavered with lust

Together the miners cleared out the whole take
They dreamed of the weapons that they would soon make
But the ore sprung to life, at last it was awake
It crushed the invaders, their backs it did break

These mountains belong not to beings which sow
Eons past, living metals would shelter below
Through the gravel and dirt the titans would burrow
Slumbering for a time in their hardened grotto

The intruders lay dead and the creature of chrome
Thrashed through the fresh mineshaft, beginning to comb
For more of its kind resting in the rock dome
They would rise as a legion and fight for their home

Exhumation by Ethan Hedman


Captain Robert Hadlow woke in the night and rose from his bunk, taking a long moment to steady himself against the adjacent desk. He expelled a medley of a sigh and growl; the troubles that accompany a venerable age had come faster than he had imagined possible. With feeble knees and poor sight serving as daily frustrations, he resented the added irritation of sleeplessness.

When his legs were stable enough for him to stand and stretch without aid, it became clear why the captain been unsettled from his rest. His ship, the Venture, was perfectly silent. When Robert had embarked the bunk, the ship had been her usual self, softly creaking and groaning. It was her sweet song of travel, and it had lured him into a peaceful sleep. Now, all was quiet, and the floor beneath him was far too solid and forgiving under his fickle legs. Damn it all, he thought, we’ve been becalmed!

It’s a terrible thing for a ship to lose its wind and sit still in the middle of the sea. A becalmed crew finds itself restless with prayers and promises to deities and spirits for swift breezes that may never come. Supplies must be rationed, tensions quickly rise, and each man among the madness hopes to survive and meet a fate kinder than a tedious death brought by hunger or thirst.

Robert trudged to the door, tugging on his ragged coat and contemplating his forthcoming orders. He’d have Symon Stokes, the ship’s quartermaster, ration the crew’s water and rum as half-portions. He’d need to assemble the crew in the morning for a vote on whether or not to begin rationing their meals. The Venture had taken casks of mutton aboard at their last port that were meant to be traded elsewhere for fruits and cloth. The crew deserved to have their say as to when the casks should be broken; a fair number of the men would surely rather keep them stowed for the moment, and salted meats would only serve to worsen their looming thirst.

Worn wood and rusted hinges creaked through the silence as he opened the cabin’s door. “Fetch Mr. Stokes,” he called out to the darkness, leaning against his doorframe while massaging his sore eyes. Upon receiving no answer–not so much as the expected aye, sir–he strained to scan the deck, hoping to spot who was on watch.

There was only one figure he could make out, leaning against the mainmast. As he strode slowly forward through the night, the soul’s form was made clearer. To his shock, it was a woman. She was adorned with a sheer white gown and had dark hair that shone brilliantly in the light of the moon.

“Hello, Robert,” she said, leaving the mast. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

The captain flinched, taken aback, agitated by the unexpected caller. “You, there!” he barked. “Where are my men?”

“Don’t worry. They’re all perfectly safe in their hammocks, lulled into a deep and tranquil sleep. You can go below and see for yourself, if you like.”

“And just who are you?”

“You may not recognize me, but we know each other well. I am the sea,” the woman said. She wore a warm, confident smile to enforce her claim while the captain gawked at her bizarre declaration.

“You’re what?”

“I am the flowing waters beneath your ship and the shifting gusts above. In this case,” she said, gesturing at herself from head to toe, “I appear as such so that we might speak.”

“Nonsense,” he scoffed.

The woman cocked her head slightly to the side. “Do you find it easier to think that I, who you believe you’ve never met, managed to swim to a place with no land in sight, only to board your vessel and greet you by name?”

This gave Robert pause. He was hardly the sort who believed in phantoms and specters, and so he had taken her for a stowaway. Yet it was all but impossible to think that she could have come and stayed aboard unnoticed; as an experienced merchant, he demanded a thorough inventory of his vessel just before leaving port. On a methodical ship of commerce such as the Venture, an inventory amounted to a highly effective search. If she truly was a stowaway, she should have been found within an hour of departure just as others before her had been.

“Fine, then. Say you are the sea.” He couldn’t grasp the circumstances of her presence, but saw little harm in indulging the intruder. She hardly seemed dangerous and was clearly not armed. “What is it you want with me? I’m no-one of consequence. Not a Lord with a post in His Majesty’s Navy or a pirate king in command of a terrible fleet.” He shifted his weight and tugged at the fraying cuffs of his weathered coat. “I’m just an old merchant, nothing more.”

“I know just who you are, Robert Hadlow. You’ve spent so many years rolling on my waves and being carried by my wind. You even tried to make a home on dry land. It was intolerable, too stable for a man suited to a life of chance and opportunity. Land was unworthy, and so you came back to me. Life, for you, was a voyage.”

“That much could be said for any seasoned sailor who tried to live ashore.”

“True, but we have more than just that. We shared a moment. A moment which I consider intimate.” She drifted to the ship’s starboard side and ran her hand gently along the rail. “Right here, and in the depths below, nearly two years past. I will never forget it.”

The captain moved to join her, his bony hand gripping the lacquered wood. “I don’t recall.”

She stared down towards the still water. “It was when Percival was laid to rest.”

Robert swallowed hard, remembering the somber occasion. Percy had been the ship’s cat for well over a decade. He was brought aboard the Venture as a scrawny kitten by a cook, Devin Ballard, to hunt for rodents that had been sighted in the ship’s galley. ‘He’s black as darkest night, this one,’ Mr. Ballard had said of the tiny recruit, ‘and so much the better to creep up on our vermins, sir, you’ll see.’ The kitten had taken to the captain at once, swishing between his boots and mewing for attention in the hopes of being rubbed or held. It wasn’t long before Robert liked the cat as much as Percy liked the man.

Percy had made a habit of sleeping between the captain’s feet on his bunk, coming and going as he pleased through a hole that had been freshly cut through the door. He slept and woke from his chosen spot until the day finally came that he did not wake. Bearing the loss had been a miserable task. Robert often caught himself glancing at the spot between his ailing legs when he woke, feeling the friendless space between them as if it were a pit.

“Percy was dear to me,” the captain said. “I committed his body to the deep.”

“Yes. After all of his years with you, he was given over to me. He died of old age, as every cat should, and you sent him to the depths with honors as though he were a member of the crew.”

“He was.”

“It was a mournful day.”

“It was.”

There was a heavy pause before the woman spoke again. “Your men didn’t see you weep for him.”

“No.” His eyes watered at the thought of it. “No, they couldn’t. To see their captain cry would be to see no captain at all.”

“For them, perhaps, but not for me. As Percival slipped below, I felt your sorrow. I tasted the tears you spilled over the side. I am the sea, and so that part of you became a part of me. In that moment I felt your pain and your love.”

Robert gazed at the woman, mystified that she could know his heart. She simply smiled back at him. “I care not for admirals or pirates,” she said. “I care for you, and the time has come for me to grant you your share of peace.”

“I have peace enough. The life of a merchant captain suits me.”

“It did, and quite well; there can be no question that you’ve lived the life you were meant for. But that time has passed.” She backed away from the railing, heading slowly towards the captain’s cabin. “You could never resist me before, Robert. I never had to beg for your company, as I knew you would always return. Now,” she said, stopping just inside the doorway and extending a hand, “I stand before you and ask for your trust. Will you trust me?”

The captain stared into her eyes, stepping forward to accept her invitation. “Of course I will.”

She took the captain into his cabin and gently shut the door behind them.

* * *

Captain Hadlow had been found in his bunk at midday, having made no appearance to break his fast. He lay just as still as Percival had, his body spent and lifeless.

“Poor bastard,” Mr. Stokes muttered, staring down at the corpse. “He hadn’t even thought to retire. He’d’ve wanted to keep on with the trade for another half-dozen years, at the least.”

“Aye, retirement weren’t for him” said Bryan Lobb, a common sailor and friend of Mr. Stokes. “Ask me yesterday and I’d’ve said he’d live a good while yet.”

“I would’ve said the same.”

“Well, best we call for a vote soon. Ain’t right to have no wind and no captain. Terrible bad luck, this is.”

“We’ll have a vote soon enough.”

“It’ll be you. I’ll wager on it.”

“Might be.” Symon shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, not now. Go and fetch some lads to stitch and weigh the bag.”

Everything had been prepared within the hour. The Venture‘s crew assembled on the deck as Mr. Stokes began the solemn ceremony. As the traditional words were intoned–“We therefore commit his body to the deep,”–the sack that held the remains of Captain Robert Hadlow was sent sliding from the tilting plank it had rested on into the waiting sea.

At that very moment, the wind came.

It was a matter of minutes before the promptly-elected Captain Stokes christened his new role with a flurry of orders to make sail. Amid an outbreak of toasts celebrating the wind and mourning the previous captain, the Venture left its short-lived resting place and sailed onwards to her next port.

Beneath the departing ship, in the darkness of the depths, a shining spirit stood grinning and laughed as a weighted sack struck the ocean floor. He was young, entirely in his prime, and had an excitable cat sprawled over his shoulder.

I don’t know how to thank you, he said, or thought, or felt, in a manner that expressed his heart without the clumsy use of spoken words.

But you do, his newfound world replied. You and Percival aren’t the only two below. There are others. Others whose souls are of the sea. You are you, and I am me, and we are all an us. Go and meet us. Be us. Be free.

He could feel them, and could feel the vastness of all around him. He was Robert Hadlow, to be sure, and the cat in his arms was none other than his dearest friend Percy. But they were both so much more. They, too, were now the sea.

Becalmed by Ethan Hedman