When we were test floating it, it sat pretty low. It was heavy. But with the engines on it just hung there, barely above the water, with the water underneath skittering around madly, trying to figure out whether it was supposed to get out of the way or not. The engines were meant to push off things, not to make the crawler float through the air, that it why it was called a crawler. If you were lucky, you could survive ending up under one of those engines while it was holding the crawler up in a way you couldn’t if you ended up under the crawler itself, but they still pushed things down and around in weird ways.
“Take her to the test site,” Rimares said, and then climbed top side through the hatch above us. I stayed in the cockpit, taking in all the equipment and blinking lights. Birch got to take us out because she knew how to drive most anything with a working nav. Her already intimidating eyes always had a disturbing look of seeing things no one else could see. Though the nav, she could do just that.
You could link in to a nav just by touching it, though the crawler had a yoke attached to the pilot’s seat that looked sort of like shoulder guards with a contact band resting against the neck of the pilot. That way the pilot had their hand’s free to work the controls with. You could fly a ship through the nav, but physical controls were more reassuring. The neck band was padded and pretty comfy. It also protected your neck in case of a crash, or a really rough ride.
She had been teaching me how to see through the nav. It took work to understand all the lights and colors, but when they started making sense it was like seeing more levels of reality layered on top of what you were used to. Looking through it made the world seem bigger somehow.
The test site was a wide stretch of beach set up against some cliffs on the north side of the island. Not many people lived out there. The area was too hilly and rocky. So it was were the shops went to test their equipment if they were worried about it blowing up or something. The crawler skimmed across the water like a giant water bug and then settled on to the beach in a flurry of loose sand.
When we got there, I joined Rimares outside the ship, on the ground. He had comm units from the shop. He would give a command to Birch, who would confirm what he said, see if things worked that way or not, and I would take notes that Rimares dictated to me. Good thing he didn’t use too many words, because a lot of the words he did use were big words, and I could only write so fast.
As the day dragged on, it got pretty boring watching the crawler crawl this way and that way, hover higher or lower, almost but not quite ever tip over, again and again. There were other people watching, bored sailors, competitors, ship watchers, but they all kept their distance and mostly wandered off as it became clear nothing was going to blow up or provide much entertainment for them.
At the end of the day, we gathered around on the cooler side of the ship and Rimares went over the results again, just to be sure everything looked good.
When we were all done, Birch asked if she could let me take it for a spin.
“Not off the beach,” Rimares said. “I don’t want to be getting together a salvage team to dig you out of the ocean if something goes wrong.”
Birch helped me get settled into the pilot’s seat, and to wrap myself into the yoke, and went over what all the controls were. I carefully raised the crawler off the ground, feeling it thrumming beneath me, and feeling like I was the giant bug of a crawler myself through the nav. I turned it to face up the beach and slowly opened the throttle.
That was where things went wrong. There was an explosion outside the crawler, sounding like it came from one of the engines. Smoke started to filter up from below. The ship lurched but recovered, and started accelerating faster. I pulled back on the throttle and nothing happened. Every light on the controls had gone dark, including the nav. I slammed on brakes that weren’t there, everything. The ship was ignoring me and flying blind.
Birch reached forward and grabbed the controls. “It’s dead!,” I shouted, which probably wasn’t necessary, since her ear was right there.
“Out of the chair,” she said, ripping the yoke off me. I clambered out thinking she was going to hop in. Instead she pushed me toward the ladder and up, following behind. I scampered onto the top deck and she was right behind me. We were moving across the ground faster than I had ever moved over anything solid before with a cliff face right in front of us.
Before I even knew what had happened, she had grabbed me and jumped. We were at least 30 feet up and moving at a speed normally reserved for airships by then. She had spun us around and I could see the crawler moving away impossibly fast. We hit the ground with a sickening crunch that was pale echo of the crawler plowing into the side of the cliff at full tilt.
The world turned a leaden gray and seemed to slow down as I felt my arm scream in pain when we hit the ground. Then I was launched out of her arms, though the air to slam hard in a heap against some rock. Next I knew I was running back toward Birch. I saw her there looking like a shattered rag doll, bones jutting through the skin, every limb at the wrong angle, blood oozing out in every direction. I think I was still screaming when Rimares caught up with us.
Then I realized Birch was staring at me, through me, with a weird look that was trying to tear some dark secret out of me, and I felt like I had been slapped. I stared back in sudden and shocked silence. “You worry too much,” she softly croaked. Followed by something that might have been a laugh. “Can you straighten my legs?” Her voice was barely audible. I looked at her, not comprehending. “My legs,” she repeated.
One leg was twisted under her at an impossible angle, the other had the jagged bone sticking straight out. I knelt down next to her, and hesitantly touched the leg with the bone sticking out. “The other one,” she croaked.
I tried to move the other leg. It felt like a limp, boneless piece of meat. Rimares, without a word, knelt down next to me and started helping. We got it pulled out from under her.
“Now the other one,” she said in a whisper, her eyes glazing over with pain. “You’re going to have to pull.”
Rimares pushed me forward. “Sit on her,” he said. He pushed me harder. “On her chest. I need the extra weight.” I found myself pushed forward to where I was kneeling across her chest, hands on her shoulders, with no place to look but her face.
“Hey, beautiful,” she said with a weak smile. Then her entire body jerked hard under me and she screamed. I could feel her ribs grinding under me in ways they weren’t supposed to. It took three tries before Rimares decided it was right. I got off her and started to throw up, tears pouring down my face. She was hissing things softly at Rimares, who was doing what he could to help her, but I wasn’t listening.
After the heaving had stopped and the beach had settled into a momentary quiet, Birch spoke. “I bet you think all those stories about pirates are just that, don’t you? Stories.” She wasn’t croaking so much that time, though the pain in her shaking voice hurt just to hear. “Maybe you should turn around. Find out what people fear so much.”
I was afraid. I turned around. Something in her voice made it impossible not to. Her eyes were still digging in to me. For an instant, her eyes looked back with fear I hadn’t seen before, then fell back into pain.
One of the biggest reason people are afraid of pirates is they are so notoriously hard to kill. While I sat there, trembling with I don’t know how many emotions, her body was putting itself back together. Wounds closed, limbs straightened. By the time a medical floater showed up with a bunch of healers, she could almost sit up again with some help. By the time they got her to the nearest hospital, there were no open wounds to be found.
The next day, although she was limping terribly, and the doctors didn’t want her doing even that yet, the only thing she complained about was how ravenously hungry she was. She made it clear that being injured didn’t hurt any less, and even compared to most pirates, she healed really fast.
The last thing she said to me as the healers were loading her on to the floater was, “And look at you. Not a scratch. Said you were lucky.” There was that weird, fearful look in her eyes again, and right then and there lucky was one thing I did not feel.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.