Asymmetric Warfare

Jason's curiosity had definitely been piqued, yet he had his reservations about broaching the subject of Beatrix again. He believed that Roland would be most inclined to speak about her if the man felt he could do so at his leisure. For that reason, it was not until several days after the "Argo"'s departure from Pewpik that Jason made reference to her, and then only indirectly.

It was mid-morning. Jason, Roland, and about twenty other Argonauts were eating breakfast in the ship's mess. The mess, oddly named as Jason thought it was (it was kept meticulously clean and Roland still called it a mess), was the biggest room ("Compartment." Talbot was apt to correct) in the whole ship. Not that that was saying much. However vast the "Argo" had appeared to Jason initially, he hadn't considered what it would be like once he was on it along with all the people standing on the docks beside him. It actually felt pretty crowded with forty-nine shipmates. And twenty-six bedrooms plus a reasonable number of bathrooms and a great deal of storage space didn't leave much room for anything else. The mess could fit all fifty of the Argonauts—barely. When they assembled there for meetings, many had to stand.

Anyway, between bites of ostensible food, Jason asked Roland "Did you say that your ex-mother-in-law was a suffragette?"

Roland blinked in surprise. "Yes, though I used the pluperfect."


"It's a verb tense."

"Oh." Jason made a face. "Kind of annoying that you know more about English grammar than I do." Roland shrugged. "What I was wondering is, she didn't have Beatrix very late in life, did she?"

"She was forty-seven when I married her daughter, who was one year my senior. You do the arithmetic."

"She was… thirty. Not very old."

"Get to the point, Jason."

"That seems awfully late in history to be campaigning for women's suffrage."

"Perhaps it was, compared to the United States. Recall that you're not in Kansas anymore."

"Pretty much every Western country got women's suffrage by World War II." Jason furrowed his brow. "When did Gyeeds get it?"

"Around 30, 5580."

"That was… 1960 CE!"

At that moment, a teenage sailor burst into the room. His pimple-spotted face clearly and eloquently expressed that Murphy's Law had just been proven right once again. "Bad news, guys!" He was speaking to the whole room, but he didn't need to raise his voice much. Everyone put down their eating utensils and looked at him.

<Great timing.> Jason thought bitterly.

"The wheel broke. We've still got enough juice to last two or three days, but that's it."

<Wheel? What wheel? I thought this was a ship!>

Everyone else seemed to know what the boy was talking about. They didn't look pleased.

"The captain wants to speak to you two." added the sailor, nodding at Jason and Roland. Then he left.

"I think some of my trouble magnetism rubbed off on this ship." Jason grumbled.

"Look on the bright side." said Roland. "Wherever we stop to get repairs, we'll no doubt be able to get better victuals than this vile stuff."

"Well, that didn't take long." said Jason. He, Roland, and Talbot were on the bridge, gathered around Gunther, who was currently piloting the ship. Jason would've thought it dangerous to talk while piloting, but he wasn't the pilot, and he figured Gunther knew what he was doing. "First of all, would anyone care to tell me what the wheel is?"

"Jesus Christ, boy!" Talbot exclaimed (or rather, didn't exclaim—you know what I mean). "Didn't it ever strike you as pertinent to find out something about this ship before trying to guide it?"

"Sheesh, chill." said Jason, cowed. "I've never pretended to be an admiral or a captain; I'm just here to do the strategizing and the politicking."

"It should be awfully hard to strategize when you've no idea of your resources." Talbot growled.

"I know, I know, I'm sorry; I'll do my homework from now on. In the meantime, I'd like to know what's going on."

"Allow me to explain." said Roland. It was the first time he had ever spoken to Jason in Common while not talking about language itself. "The wheel is a mechanism specially designed for Starving Sea ships that takes advantage of the Sea's attraction to produce power. It's a paddle wheel located on the bottom of the ship, positioned on a 'ledge' of cibium so that part of it is protected from the downward force and part of it isn't. The latter portion is attracted downwards, and so the wheel spins, but the paddles never break off of the wheel because their motion brings them over the cibium. The energy produced by this perpetual spinning is used for propulsion and to produce electricity. The machine's very existence is also a neat proof that the Sea's gravity is not in fact gravity in the usual sense."

"But it did break." said Jason.

"Yes, that's the problem." Roland replied.

"So why are the lights still on?"

"We have backup batteries, of course."

"All right. So… oh yeah, the guy said we had enough for a few days. Then what?"

"If we simply went on sailing until we ran out," Gunther unexpectedly spoke up, "we'd be stuck in the middle of the ocean and someone else would have to rescue us."

"What?" squawked Jason. "Can't we repair the stinkin' wheel?"

"Not while we're at sea." said Roland. "How could anybody reach it under the ship? There's no such thing as a cibium diving suit."

"Couldn't you, like, hold a sheet of it under yourself while you were swimming, or something?"

"No, it has to be very thick to provide adequate protection, and it's very heavy."

"So what do we do? Call for help?"

"Find some other body of water." said Talbot. "I don't think Stanley" (here he looked at Roland meaningfully) "would like to go to the additional expense of sending a ship to rescue us. It's not the end of the multiverse; all we need to do is sail somewhere a diver can make the repairs without getting killed."

"And where can we do that?" said Jason.

"The only island within range that has such a body of water is Hoon." said Gunther. "I've already set our course for it."

"Great!" said Jason. "See, you guys don't even need me."

Talbot opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it.

The Argonauts grumbled when they learned of the detour. In reality, it wasn't a very long one: by that afternoon, Hoon loomed large on the horizon. Looking through a pair of binoculars, Jason saw the sheer sides of the island—no tides meant no erosion, and no erosion meant no beaches. On its surface was some civilization: dozens of crude stone houses and a throng of people wearing handmade clothing. Nearby the village was a freshwater lake and a river that fed off from the sea; it was the latter toward which the "Argo" was headed. Most of the rest of the island was covered with deciduous forest, embellished with the occasional green hill.

Jason was shortly called over to the bridge again, where he found the rest of the gang.

"The King of Hoon radioed us, asking who we are and what we're doing." said Roland. "We told him, and now we're waiting for a response."

As they did so, another sailor ran in. "Guys!" he said. "I saw something rising from the hills. It's flying towards us, I think."

"I warn you." a voice crackled out of the speaker. The king had another thick accent that was completely new to Jason's ears. "A mother dragon has her lair here. She has a habit of attacking incoming ships."

Roland froze. Talbot looked aghast. Jason whimpered involuntarily. Several nearby sailors swore.

Gunther simply said "Oh, goodness."

There was a silence lasting about two seconds. Then, Talbot bellowed "Mages, air-to-ship defense!", turned, and dashed away, moving quickly in spite of his age. A few people followed him.

Roland looked at Jason. "I'm no battle-mage, but we need all the firepower we can get. Stay and talk to the king; you should be safe here." With that, he exited likewise.

The ship rang with shouting and the clatter of men and boys zooming about as all twenty-nine of the ship's sorcerers hurried into position. Jason shook his head sadly and pressed a button on the ship's control panel. (He did know how to work the radio, at least.) "We've got plenty of mages on board, and we're preparing to confront the dragon." he said.

"So be it." said the king.

"Gunther," said Jason, "twenty-nine mages are more than enough to fight off one dragon, right?"

"Yes, with casualties." the captain replied.

"Dang, that's no good." Far off in the distance, through the pilot-house's windows, Jason could see a small, vague shape flying over the island. The mages were all assembled now. Someone conjured a field of shimmering, pale-cyan light that covered the glass—to protect it from the dragon's fire, Jason supposed. "Do you think it would help if they helped?" he said, pointing at the village.

"Perhaps, if they have mages."

Jason used the radio again. "Would you be able to assist us?"

"It is your problem." came the reply.

"Oooh, the nerve!" Jason fumed—not over the airwaves, but more to himself than Gunther. "Like we have a choice…" Gathering his courage, he spoke to the king again. "Sir, this ship is on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Stanley Ironbone, Mayor of Gyeeds. If you allow us to come to harm, the rest of the world will hear about it without delay."

"I will not be moved by threats." the king said coolly.

Jason was at a loss for any constructive way to respond.

A few tense minutes passed as the dragon and the "Argo" drew closer. The villagers, realizing what was about to happen, ran into their houses to protect themselves from the ensuing carnage. Soon the beast was near enough that Jason could make it out in some detail. He was reminded of Roland's remark on the size of the kidnapping dragon—this monster measured eighteen feet from the tip of its snout to the base of its tail. Its hide was coal-black and covered with jagged, bright-yellow streaks. As it flew, its claws kneaded the air in anticipation of raking the flesh of its prey. It made for a terrifying sight indeed!

"Hold to retaliate!" Talbot shouted.

In a couple of seconds, the dragon and the ship were each only a few hundred feet from the island's edge. Gunther slowed down, so as not to crash into Hoon. The dragon opened its maw and spat a fireball, which raced towards a mage standing at the bow of the ship. Immediately, the Argonauts shot back with a volley of spells: a shower of projectiles in every shape and size and every color of the rainbow flew back at the beast. The mage who'd been targeted cast a spell that propelled him backwards. He fell to the floor of the ship, out of range of the fireball's explosion.

Seeing the magical assault directed at it, the dragon emitted a noise halfway between a shriek and a roar. It performed a deep split-S, evading all the shots while turning back to the direction from whence it came. It was rather low above the ground, now, moving very quickly.

"Quick strike, spread out!" Talbot shouted.

The wizards cast more projectiles, all of similar type. They were yellow, glowing globs that zoomed through the air so fast that each was a blur. The dragon flew to the left in an attempt to avoid them, grazing its wing on the upper branches of a tree, but because the mages had distributed their shots around a wide area, the beast was still hit. It wasn't seriously wounded: it faltered in the air for the moment, then continued unabated.

"Hold!" Talbot commanded.

The dragon kept flying away. After a minute, it had clearly retreated. The battle was over, and no one had even been wounded. A cheer rose up from all the Argonauts. The islanders came back out of their houses. Tears sprang to Jason's eyes in relief.

"Excellent!" said Gunther. "Now we can repair the wheel." He began to maneuver the ship towards the river.

Jason walked outside. The air was filled with the eager chattering of soldiers and sailors.

"We were lucky!" Talbot said happily to Roland and Jason. "That wyrm wasn't so much a martyr as others are. I admit I was scared when she dodged our first round. The ones that have some experience with fighting mages are always a lot tougher to take down."

"I got scared a deal earlier than that." Jason put in.

"Actually, I was disappointed I didn't have the chance to really let loose." said Roland. "At this rate, though, I'm sure opportunities for that will come up soon."

Need I say how correct this prediction was?