Sunday, June 8, 2014
Chapter 19 (concluded)
Johnny looked desperately back at the fins. There had to be something he could do ... something with his new abilities, perhaps? But, so far, every use of them had involved being in contact with something, or sensing something far away. He didn’t see how any of that could apply in this situation.
Suddenly he had a brainstorm. He dashed back into the stacks and located Roger’s crossbow. Then he sprinted up the ladder to the flying deck, barely using his hands at all. He fumbled for the cabinet where Roger kept the flammable items and pulled out one of the bottle-looking flares. Slamming the crossbow down on the deck, he put both feet on the brace and yanked hard on the cable. It only clicked once, but this was a short distance shot, so that should be enough. He loaded the bottle and shot almost immediately—Roger had taught him not to overthink his aim and just trust his instincts. The shot was true, and the flare entered the water just behind the lobster woman ... just in front of the shark and marlin. Almost immediately the green and red lights blossomed, under the water. The marlin-headed scala immediately surfaced and began flailing about; Johnny thought she might be temporarily blinded. The shark’s fin, however, cut cleanly through the underwater fireworks and continued straight on to the racing swimmers.
The head of the demonic mermaids’ leader burst out of the water just aft of the lobster scala’s tail. Her teeth snapped together thrice; the sound reminded Johnny of hearing bear traps snap shut on televison. The lobster woman screeched an alien gabble and increased her speed. The shark scala breached and dove; the brown fin sunk cleanly into the depths. The “inspirational” message to her companion had cost her some momentum though; Johnny could see she’d have to work hard to catch back up. He took the opportunity to slide down the ladder to the deck railing again.
His mind raced. He could take over the wheel from Bones, perhaps steer the ship into the lobster woman. But he couldn’t really see from back there, and the great craft was hardly a precision instrument. He’d be just as likely to hit Roger. “Can you make it rain, or snow, or something?” he asked Aidan desperately.
Aidan kept his eyes on the race. “I could do better than that: I can make the water around our lobster friend cling to her so she can’t escape it. The problem is, by the time I can do that, she’s well into a whole different patch of water. I could do it ahead of them, but then how do I keep it from affecting the good captain as well? No, Johnny, I’ve made her slick, and I stopped the octopus lady throwing her stones, and I held the lampfish one up long enough to take her out of it. But unless their leader gives me an opening to interfere with her as well, I’m likely to be of little further use in this contest.”
Johnny looked toward the far shore—it was actually the nearer shore by this time, as the race was well past its halfway point. Roger was still flying through the water at a speed that beggared belief, but the lobster creature was gaining. Slowly, almost impercetibly, but gaining. It seemed likely that it would catch her before they reached the race’s end.
Then the shark scala rose out of the water like something in a horror movie, directly in Roger’s path. Teeth flashed and arms with long hands and twisted fingers reached for her. Without slowing whatsoever, Roger turned her crawl into a sidestroke. One hand flicked out, almost like a caress, and touched the shark woman’s cheek; thick black blood began to spurt instantly. The shark’s head lunged at her nonetheless, but Roger was already halfway past it. She kicked at the scala hard, again using it to propel herself forward. With an unholy screech, the shark crashed into the lobster.
After that, the race became pleasantly boring.
At the finish line, Roger stood in ankle-deep water, bent over with her hands on her knees, dripping and panting. The scalae were a few feet offshore, in deeper water, their terrifying marine eyes promising a slow grisly death if the opportunity ever presented itself. Johnny sincerely hoped the opportunity did not.
Finally Roger regained her breath and stood up. She was still naked, still unconcerned. “A fair contest!” she called to the mermaids.
There was much grunting and squalling, but the shark waved her hand and they fell silent. “You cut me,” she said in an inflectionless tone.
“Aye,” Roger agreed amiably. “No rule against that. No rules against anything, for that matter. And I just nicked ye a bit. Ye’ll survive, I wager.” She stared a challenge back at the leader. “A fair contest,” she repeated. It wasn’t a question, but still she seemed to be expecting an answer.
The silence stretched. The shark woman ground her hideous teeth. Finally, she spoke. “A fair contest.”
Roger and Aidan let out identical exhalations of relief. “Was there some doubt about that?” Johnny asked under his breath.
Aidan answered likewise, in a half-whisper. “No doubt about the reality,” he breathed. “But the perception of a losing party is always an open question.” Johnny nodded.
Roger shaded her eyes with one hand. “Our opener then?”
The scalae pushed someone forward. It was the blue-skinned boy (or boy-like creature) who had brought the starter shell. He reluctantly trudged through the water to the shore.
His skin was a medium shade of aquamarine. The dark, slicked back hair was almost a helmet; it was short, cut high above the odd earfins, with just the hint of a widow’s peak in the front over a high forehead. The eyes were a pale, watery blue, the nose looked lumpy and squashed, the mouth was small, and the chin weak. The black fins where ears should be opened and closed as if they might be gills instead of hearing apparatus. Both hands and feet (which were bare) were webbed. He had on a simple jacket and pants, black, trimmed with narrow yellow stripes. The jacket hung open in the front, exposing a tight, thin shirt which appeared to be just a shade bluer than his skin. The wireframe glasses and a habit of drywashing his hands gave him a prissy air, as if he were an accountant or librarian, and, when he spoke, his voice was vaguely reminiscent of old Droopy Dog cartoons. And yet he reminded Johnny of a nerdy teenager more than a dusty old man, for some reason he could not put a finger on.
He splashed up to Roger and sighed loudly. “Captain?” he asked.
“Aye,” she replied, her eyes sparkling. “Opener?”
He sniffed. “Welly Banks, ma’am. At your service.”