Note: This piece was written with obvious reference to the work of H.P. “Fuck That Guy” Lovecraft, and in conversation with existing discussions of his work. I imagine my perspectives on him are already evident, and it is my ardent hope that everything I write spits in the face of everything he ever stood for. May his skeleton provide a playground for every author he would have feared; may his legacy of bigotry crunch satisfyingly under our boots as we step over it to reach greater things.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a fun story. Fuck that guy, & I hope y’all enjoy.
The Boatswain and the cat regarded each other with mutual disdain.
“You’re bad luck,” the Boatswain muttered, digging a fistful of elderflower paste out of the foil pouch in his left hand. He scraped his paste-covered palm across his bottom teeth and swallowed the paste without chewing, then returned his hand to the foil pouch. “Don’t you even try to think that I’m sharing,” he said, shifting his feet to stop the little orange cat from twining between his ankles. He would not kick the cat — the Boatswain did not hurt animals unless he strictly had to. But that did not mean he would support the cat, either. “This is the last Elderflower Paste on this entire moon, probably, and it’s mine. You’ll have to find your own supper. Go on. Get belowdecks, slaughter a rat.”
The First Mate approached, their footfalls silent on the steel plate of the deck, a ration pack in their hand. Crackers took no notice of their approach; he was too busy butting his head against the toe of the Boatswain’s boot. “Don’t let the captain see you kicking Crackers, Boatswain,” the First Mate said. “She won’t care for that one bit.”
“Wasn’t kicking him,” the Boatswain replied. “Just don’t want him furring up my ankles, begging for paste.”
The First Mate leaned against the deck rail just a few feet from the Boatswain. Crackers immediately shifted his loyalties, prancing to the First Mate with a high trill. He stood up on his hind legs, pressing a paw to the First Mate’s thigh and looking up at them with wide, fathomless green eyes. When the First Mate failed to produce either food or attention, the cat turned his entreaty into a stretch, digging his claws into their thigh in the process.
“Ah! I’m defending your honor, cat,” the First Mate said, wincing but not bothering to swat at the cat. They opened their ration pouch instead, letting the sharp crinkle of the foil drive Crackers off their leg. The cat didn’t go far — he stayed nearby, eyeing the pouch, which, from his experience, could contain all manner of meats.
The First Mate produced a spoon from the pocket of their trousers and dug into the pouch with it, filling the deck with the sharp smell of vinegared peppercorns. “You’ve got that superstition wrong, you know,” they told the Boatswain. They crouched down, holding out their fingers to the cat, but Crackers flinched away from the vinegar smell and dashed off, vanishing behind a tight coil of steel cabling. “Cats are good luck on a ship.”
“Not that one,” the Boatswain replied. He gestured at the green-and-black sky with a paste-smeared hand. The horizon ahead was an overturned bowl of dark, roiling clouds. “Look at this storm! It’s the fifth one since we set sail, and this passage is supposed to be completely clear at this time of year. We had good weather until this last stop, and then the Captain brought this cat aboard, and now?” He peered over the edge of the deck rail at the water. The water was already rabid against the side of the ship, frothing and frantic, and the storm wasn’t even on them yet.
“Your map’s old,” the First Mate mumbled around a mouthful of peppercorns. “You should’ve satlinked at port. The wind systems on the entire moon shifted when the last meteor shower came through. This passage is a mess.”
The Boatswain tipped his pouch up over his mouth, squeezing it from the bottom to the top, so the last few squiggles of elderflower paste dropped out of it. “Then why are we sailing through it?”
The First Mate shrugged. “Captain’s orders. She wants us to take the quickest route to Slate City. We’ve got perishable cargo — can’t afford to dawdle. Going around the storms would just waste time.”
“You’ve also got a perishable Boatswain,” the perishable Boatswain grumbled. He leaned against the deck rail next to the First Mate. Even through the padded canvas of his deck-jacket, the freezing metal of the railing dug into his elbows. “I’m not looking to drown on some godforsaken moon just so the Captain can pet something that’ll bite her if she sneezes too loud.”
“‘Godforsaken moon’?” The First Mate threw a sidelong glance at the Boatswain, licking hot vinegar from their spoon. “Aren’t you from here?”
“I’m from the other moon,” the Boatswain snapped. “Actin, not Aicten. Everyone mixes them up, but I’m not from this one. I’m from the better one.”
Crackers emerged from behind the rope coil, an orange smudge against the slick darkness of the deck. He stalked up behind the Boatswain, his tread slow, his belly swinging low to the ground. The Boatswain had a loose bootlace, and Crackers was an apex predator on the hunt.
He lifted each paw smoothly and slowly, approached in absolute silence, his quarry entirely unaware of what was coming for it.
The First Mate watched, waiting for the little orange cat to pounce on the bootlace. The Boatswain was going on about the differences between the two moons, which were identical in size and nearly identical in orbit, but which were, apparently, different in crucial ways that made one of them much better than the other.
Crackers crept closer, his eyes on the loose bootlace, his pupils enormous.
“You see, it’s all about culture — they’re unrefined on Aicten, they wear strange clothes and eat strange food, and their music is ridiculous, these huge bags that they blow across just to make noise…”
“Mmmm.” The First Mate made a noncommittal noise, folding up their now-empty ration pouch and tucking it into their pocket. They tried not to be too obvious about watching Crackers hunt, not wanting to give the cat’s ambush away.
The ship rocked steadily underfoot, and the First Mate swayed with the dip-and-rise of the deck. Crackers’ gait swayed, too, side-to-side, his tail curving sharply to correct for the sudden imbalance.
The First Mate frowned. The cat’s tail was curving very sharply. That wasn’t right — the cat shouldn’t have had to compensate that much for the movements of the ship on the water. The ship was always dipping and rising, was always negotiating the balance between ballast and buoyancy. It wasn’t something the First Mate or the cat paid much attention to anymore.
Not unless it started getting worse.
They glanced over their shoulder at the horizon, at the sea, at the clouds, and saw that it was, indeed, getting worse. The water was nearly indistinguishable from the firmament now, and all was void and chaos, dark as black bile. The white of the chop in the water was still visible, though.
That meant there was still time. Barely.
“First Mate!” The Captain’s voice rang out across the deck, and the First Mate bolted away from the rail to face the Captain, their spine straightening fast as an anchor chain. The Boatswain shoved his empty ration packet into a coat pocket, wiping his hands on his pants, hoping the Captain hadn’t heard him talking shit about Aicten.
Behind the Boatswain, Crackers sat abruptly and began washing a paw, his passionate need to kill the bootlace discarded as quickly as it had first arrived, nothing more or less important than any of a thousand impulses that would pass through his mind over the course of a day.
The captain strode across the deck, her eyes narrowed with a focus that made the First Mate’s throat tighten. “Lunch break’s over, I’m afraid,” she called. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we happen to be at sea.” She lifted one arm and pointed to the horizon without breaking stride, without shifting her icy gaze away from the First Mate. “We happen to be at sea, and there happens to be a rather significant storm heading our way. Were you aware of those facts, First Mate? Had you noticed either one?”
The First Mate nodded, but the Boatswain spoke before they could answer the Captain, a vague notion of honor pushing him forward like a mother prompting a child to apologize for petty theft. “It was my fault, Captain,” he said. “I was distracting them with —”
The Captain cut the Boatswain off with a look that was so sharp it could have sheared a constrictor knot through the middle without slowing down. “Why are you abovedecks?” she asked. The volume of her voice had not changed as she crossed the deck, and although she was not technically yelling at the Boatswain or the First Mate, she wasn’t not yelling at them, either. “Why aren’t you below with the rest of the crew? Am I the only person aboard this ship who looks outside sometimes?”
“The First Mate’s abovedecks,” the Boatswain muttered.
“The First Mate is necessary during storms,” the Captain snapped. “You aren’t. Too bad — you’ll have to be up here, we can’t risk opening things up to let you go down there.” She stalked past the Boatswain, automatically holding a hand down by her side and rubbing her fingers together, making a pspspsps noise at Crackers.
The cat trilled at her curiously, immune to the ambient intimidation she exuded at every other living creature in her vicinity. Crackers followed the Captain as she walked to the coil of steel cabling. When she stooped to pick up one end of the coil, he flopped onto his back next to her foot, showing off the thick orange fluff of his belly.
The Captain rubbed the knuckles of one hand against his soft fur once before withdrawing her hand just in time to dodge the closing trap of Crackers’ claws and teeth. She rose, narrowly uninjured, with the steel cable in her grip.
Thunder broke nearby with a clap like a god’s eyes opening. The Boatswain looked around, surprised — he had not seen lightning.
The Captain and the First Mate were busy clipping the heavy snap rings at their waists to tungsten loops in the steel cable. “Boatswain!” The First Mate called over the roar of the wind — but that could not be right, the Boatswain thought, because the First Mate’s long hair was loose around their shoulders, and it was not stirring in any wind. The Boatswain looked down at the cat, who was still on his back, rocking back and forth as the ship pitched on the wild water of the sea.
The thick fur of his fat belly remained unruffled, except where the Captain had dared to put her hand. The air was calm.
Still, the wind roared.
“Boatswain!” The First Mate shouted again, a vein in their forehead pulsing with the effort of shouting louder than the wind that wasn’t there. The Boatswain looked to them, dizzy and disoriented. “Clip in!”
The Boatswain did as he was told, clipping his own snap ring to the steel cable. That cable was anchored into the deck itself, and the Boatswain’s safety belt was wide and padded, and he couldn’t tell if these two facts made him feel more safe or more afraid of what might be about to happen to the ship.
Darkness came upon them all. It was as though the storm was a darkness that could, itself, cast a shadow. The Boatswain held his hand out in front of him, then brought it closer to his eyes until he startled himself by hitting his own nose. He couldn’t see his fingers, couldn’t see his own nose, knew he was suddenly cold enough to shiver violently even in his deck-jacket but couldn’t see his breath. He wasn’t sure if he was breathing. How could he know if he was breathing? How could he know that he existed, except as something that could hear the roar of the wind that wasn’t? The deck vibrated under his feet with the continuing detonation of the thunder, but there wasn’t lightning, and the dark was climbing down into The Boatswain’s lungs, and the vibrations were separating his skin from his meat, and the roar was between the inside of his skull and the outside of his brain.
There was no light. And then, as sudden as a murderous impulse coming into the mind of a thing that was made only to kill, there was light.
Two great lights in the darkness, like moons that have mixed up their schedules and come too close together, pulling tides up with them and drowning a planet because it didn’t occur to them not to. The deck lit up yellow, and the Boatswain could see the Captain and the First Mate, both of them clinging to the steel cable and the deck rail, both of their faces slick and dark.
The Boatswain lifted the fingers of one hand to his face again, and it came away dark too; he tasted the dark and it was salt-warm blood, from his eyes or his nose or his mouth, he couldn’t know. He couldn’t feel any of it, any of himself, and the lights were so bright, and he knew that moons couldn’t look at a man but he couldn’t help feeling like these moons were looking at him with fathomless indifference and merciless hunger.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
The captain was lifting one of her hands away from the cable at her waist. Her knees were bent deep, and she rocked back and forth at hard, fast angles, keeping time with the pendulum-swing of the ship. She was looking at the lights in the darkness with the fixed gaze of the hypnotized, and her face was slack, but, with an obvious effort of will, she lifted her hand out to one side.
She was holding a foil ration pouch. The pouch was open.
The Boatswain could not read the label from where he stood, but the First Mate was near enough to see. It said ‘Tuna Gel, Medium Fat’.
It had been Chicken Powder With Pieces last time, but this storm was bigger than the last one, and the Captain liked to hedge her bets. Although the Captain could not hear herself over the deafening sound of the storm that was not a storm, although she could not feel her lips through the numbing heat of her prey-fear, her mouth still knew how to form the call.
She had trained for this. She was prepared.
She wet her lips and said “Pspspspspss?”
Crackers trotted across the deck. He stood up on his hind legs and rested a questioning paw against the Captain’s thigh. She lowered the ration pouch enough to let him smell it, then lifted it toward the prow of the ship.
Crackers moved with purpose. He trotted swiftly toward the prow and leapt up onto it with a grace that did not rightly belong to his portly frame. He looked up at the lights in the sky, and with the authority that a ship’s cat claims without ever having considered the need to earn it, he meowed.
The wind died. The water did not still — it could not, because it was stirred by the movement of a mass too great to deny — but quiet overcame the ship, the Boatswain, the Captain, the First Mate.
The lights in the sky blinked out. The darkness was incapacitating, total, maddening, and the Captain felt for a moment that there was no such thing as sight, there had never been sight, there never would be sight again — but then, at last, the lights in the sky returned.
On the prow of the ship, invisible to any of the humans on the deck, Crackers slowly closed his eyes. He opened them again, just as slowly.
With that, his work was done. He leapt down from the prow of the ship and raced to the Captain’s side, meowing loudly to be sure that she knew he was on his way. She waited. Crackers knew, as much as he could be said to ‘know’ anything, that he had done what was required of him; but the Captain had been staring at the impossibly huge lights in the sky with all the terror and relief of someone who did not know whether she more feared their presence or their absence. She had not witnessed Crackers’ work.
She only knew that he had done his job when the lights began to descend, and with them went the smothering darkness. Wind returned — real wind, cold and damp and none-too-gentle but not a deafening roaring wind that grasped the blood inside a person’s body and yanked on it.
Their safe passage had been negotiated.
Only then did the Captain lower herself to the deck. She crouched slowly, because the water was still rough and it was tricky to stay balanced. She braced herself against the steel underfoot with one flat hand, and with the other, she dumped out the contents of the ration pouch. A prism of Tuna Gel slid out of the foil packet, falling onto the deck with a noise like a wet mouth opening.
The Boatswain fell to his knees, his open mouth filling with the blood that still poured from his nose and eyes. The First Mate offered him their spare handkerchief, but he did not understand how to take it, so they rested a hand on his trembling shoulder instead.
“It’ll be okay,” the First Mate said. “You’ll get over it. It’s just a storm, Boatswain.”
At the Captain’s feet, Crackers began to feast on his reward.