You know, I still don’t know how I feel about Strange Lands. When I write, I am rarely setting out to communicate something specific with a story – I’m really just interested in telling the stories that are in my head. This story is kind of an exception. For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a story featuring a Star Trek-style Prime Direction from the perspective of the “pre-warp” civilization, and as I wrote about in the original release for this episode, that was what I was trying to do here. Perhaps because of that I am still struggling to decide how well I did with this piece of writing.
My main goal, going through revisions having now completed the Pifechan invasion episodes at the end of season two, was to help readers understand the Pifechan mindset, and to make them seem less like a tropy evil empire out to dominate the world. The Pifechans, and particularly the crew of this poor ship that gets stranded in the Aprina Basin, are not evil, or cruel, or immoral. They are a complicated people who, at least those featured in this episode, genuinely believe that they are trying to do the right thing. They have their imperfections, but Captain Tarshion means what he says when he asserts that he is acting in what he sees as the best interests of both peoples. I’m hoping that little changes, like having him think about how to present his interactions with Merolate in a report to his government in a way that won’t lead to an invasion, will help in that effort.
There’s only so much that I can do, though, with the scenes I have. I could perhaps have communicated more by keeping to just one Pifechan viewpoint, instead of jumping around to several of them, but then we would have missed out on important breadth and character building (plus, I was hedging my bets at the time of the original writing with the thought that one of them might eventually be the traitor who helps turn the tide in the season finale). They also simply wouldn’t realistically be thinking very much about the Board, Headmaster, and other components of their central government while they are struggling to survive in an alien land.
I will leave it to the reader’s interpretation whether Pifecha’s government is despicable – I did intend to imply that they are not the pure force for good that they think they are – but I do hope that I was able to communicate that there is no “bad guy” in this story. Certainly, I don’t want anyone thinking that Captain Tarshion is evil, even if he is rather annoying and condescending. Blood Magic tends to be a story with pretty clear good and evil, especially with the conflicts between demons and such, but this episode is more nuanced, or at least intended to be. Whether or not I succeeded in that is for you to decide.
By necessity, this is also one of those episodes in which much of the action happens off-page. Doil’s efforts at translation, the entire process of repairing the ship and everything that happens during that effort, occur without the reader ever getting more than glimpses and implications. As I’ve been working on longer pieces recently, I had to keep reminding myself during my revisions that this is supposed to be a short story, and that such action by implication is both acceptable and necessary in that format. I’m not particularly interested in writing Blood Magic novels.
Ultimately, I do like this story, and if I sound critical of it, that has at least as much to do with how much extra thought went into it as it does with any real shortcomings in the writing. I think Captain Tarshion, Commander Crout, and to a lesser extent Evry are well characterized, Doil and Kiluron get some good character development, a lot of groundwork is laid for later episodes, and we manage to communicate a lot of important ideas in a short span of words. I hope that you enjoy Strange Lands.
There were only four of them sitting in the makeshift briefing room, although it was almost a stretch to call it a room. Four, out of an original officer complement of twenty, and one of their four was only an officer by virtue of a field promotion, granted by the captain to provide some semblance of order and normalcy.
Evry hadn’t thought it would really make a difference, but somehow it had. While she could barely hold the ship’s hull together, Captain Tarshion’s decision to promote Chief Wair to Ensign Wair had kept their entire world from devolving into chaos. For a brief moment, Evry had thought her faith in Captain Tarshion had been misplaced, but no longer. She, and the rest of the crew, would follow the man to the ends of the world, if he so ordered. Indeed, it seemed they had done just that.
Settling himself on the overturned bucket that was all they had to offer as a chair, Captain Tarshion met the eyes of each of his three officers in turn. He took in their bedraggled, worn, bruised countenances, and somehow got them all to stand up a little straighter, despite their exhaustion. “Report.”
The word rang with crisp normalcy, but there was nothing normal about the situation, and no one knew which of them was supposed to report first. Normally, the first officer would have gone first, but he was missing, presumed drowned. The second officer was in a coma in what was left of the medical bay, and the executive officer was dead, crushed beyond recognition when a bulkhead caved. His burial at sea had been conducted with buckets.
The other officers seemed to be going through the same thought process, until Commander Crout cleared his throat. As the medical officer, he was technically outside of the chain of command, but he was the second highest ranking person in the room. “Well Captain, do you want the bad news, the really bad news, or the terrible news first?”
He did not await an answer to this question. “The med bay is in shambles. I’ve lost half my nurses, and we don’t have the crew to spare to train more. My equipment is almost all gone or damaged beyond repair. There are three crewmembers, including Second Officer Shaldun, who are still alive, but whom I don’t expect to hang on much longer, not unless I can get them to a proper medical facility. A dozen more sailors are in critical condition, and it would be faster to list those who aren’t injured than those who are. I think the former list is maybe three people long.”
It should have been the worst report of the day. Commander Crout delivered it as if reading the titles of his own condemnation; he never had learned to keep the same detachment that most doctors assumed. Evry knew that it wasn’t, though. The worst was yet to come. She started to speak, but no sound came out at first. She had to clear her throat two more times before she managed to make proper speaking noises.
When she did finally get the words out, they sounded dead, as mechanical as the engines she was supposed to maintain. The engines that were now gone. “We’ve stopped the worst of the leaks, and the motorized bailers are working constantly, but we’ll be out of power soon; most of the fuel went overboard in the storm. Even if I could get the engines repaired, which I doubt, we have no way to fuel them.” She didn’t need to add that the engines would be useless even if they repaired them, since the enormous paddlewheels were both torn to shreds, the only evidence of their erstwhile existence the huge axle shafts extending from either side of the ship, near the stern. Everyone could see that well enough for themselves. “We have no propulsion at all. We’re stuck here, wherever here is.”
“Yes, as it happens, I’ve been doing some figuring on that matter,” Captain Tarshion replied. He sounded as calm as if they were discussing the finer points of cheesemaking over a cup of tea. “I believe that I have determined our position to be in fact very near the double zero. That means that, if the projections are correct, we are not far distant from the continent of Lufilna.”
“But that’s impossible,” Evry interjected before she could prevent herself. “My apologies, Sir, but Lufilna is barely more than a myth. And no ship has ever passed the double zero square.” Indeed, it was thought to be terrible luck to cross the double zero square, enough so that it had been codified into maritime law that no ship should sail beyond that meridian. Not that Evry believed in such superstition. She was an engineer, not some mystic sailor.
“Nevertheless, that is where I believe us to be,” Captain Tarshion asserted. “And I would propose that our chances of survival are greater by making for the continent of Lufilna. I realize that most of you consider it to by little more than a myth, a legend out of ancient times, but recent projections regarding the gravitational influence of the planet do imply the existence of a large land mass in the opposing hemisphere from our native Pifecha.”
It pained Evry to disagree with the captain, but she felt she had little choice. “But Captain, even if it does exist, we have no way have knowing where it is or how to reach it. And even should we know those things, we have no means of propulsion. That storm has reduced us to getting out and pushing!” Never mind that the fabled continent was supposedly cursed. Again, not that she believed in such nonsense.
Unfortunately, that was not far from the truth, and it spoke to the underlying consternation of all of the officers, of the entire crew. This ship had been designed to penetrate the Southern Ice Fields, sailing the frigid waters of the South Boran Ocean between Grinou and the south pole. Yet when they had sought to respond to a distress call from a ship well north of them, they had rapidly found themselves in a storm that made their ice breaking armor plating seem like paper mâché.
“Commander Evry, I would have expected greater imagination from you,” Captain Tarshion observed. “The wind still blows, does it not? The tides still ebb and flow, do they not? We have around us the same powers that have been moving ships across these seas for centuries before the invention of coal-fired steam engines. Why, our ancestors are said to have been able to navigate nearly as effectively by reading the waves as we are by using the sun and stars.”
“It’s not as if we have bundles of extra sailcloth and a spare mast lying around on what’s supposed to be a state-of-the-art steam-powered ice breaking exploration vessel,” Evry grumbled. But the captain was right. He almost always was. An idea was already working its way through Evry’s brain. “I suppose if we were to gather up whatever cloth we can find – uniforms, banners, blankets, the like, whatever we can spare – we might be able to cobble together some kind of makeshift sail. I could probably rig it up somehow from the steamstacks.”
“A fine idea. Make it happen,” Captain Tarshion ordered. “Now, Ensign Wair?”
Ensign Wair shifted uncomfortably. It was odd for such a grizzled veteran to look uncomfortable around authority, but there was a sense in which ensign was a far lower rank than chief, for all that it might not look it on paper. Still, he knew his job better than anyone on the ship. “A lot of the damage didn’t come from the storm, Captain,” he admitted. “A lot of the damage came from the charges. No matter how carefully we pack them, liquid fire is just too volatile. It got shaken around enough by the storm winds to go off. However, we still have one cannon, and most of the small arms. One of the storage units of shot survived, but we only have enough liquid fire for maybe a half dozen cannon rounds. More in the small arms, obviously.”
That worried Evry even further. If they were going to be sailing into unknown, supposedly cursed territory, she would have preferred to be doing it well-armed. Though she could easily dismiss curses as nothing but superstition, most myths and legends were at least based on truth. Something, long enough ago that it had faded from common consciousness, had happened to convince the cultures of an entire hemisphere that they ought not to go to the other side of the globe.
She suspected that Captain Tarshion harbored similar reservations, but he gave no sign of it. “Focus your attentions on the cannons,” he instructed. “Collect cartridges from the small arms to pool for more shot, if you can. We are more likely to need cannons than pistols.”
“Aye, Sir,” replied Ensign Wair.
There should have been more reports, but there hadn’t been time to appoint more of the crew to positions of authority since the storm had struck. Not that there was a lot of crew remaining over which to have authority. Evry fought down her emotions as Captain Tarshion cleared his throat. There would be time to mourn later, when they were out of danger.
“Very well,” Captain Tarshion pronounced. “We will attempt to make landfall at the fabled continent Lufilna, traveling via improvised sail. In the meantime, we will seek to repair the ship as best we can. First priority will be a full inventory of our supplies, leaving nothing out from the list, even personal items. Then we can begin to see what else we might be able to do to improve our situation.” He paused, looking at each of his officers in turn. “We will make our way home again, I swear it. And it will because all of you make this the best crew in the fleet.”
Though Evry knew that the Captain was practically obligated to say things like that, especially in dire situations, she nevertheless swelled with pride. When the Captain dismissed them, she left the makeshift briefing room with her spirits high, determined to hold their vessel together even if she had to use chewing pines and her own hair. That lasted until she began scrounging for fabric with which to improvise a sail, at which point the reality of their situation returned. Evry was an engineer, so she understood statistics. She suspected their survival was, in more ways than one, about as likely as finding a mythical continent.
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