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Airy Navies Grappling In the Central Blue

For I dipt into the future,
far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world,
and all the wonder that could be,
Saw the heavens fill with commerce,
argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight,
dropping down with costly bales.

Heard the heavens fill with shouting,
and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue.

"Locksley Hall"

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1842


A fragile wooden Ship, complete with canvas sails, was sailing between the stars. This was patently, embarrassingly impossible, of course, but fortunately the Ship didn't know that, and neither did her crew. Actually, it was more like two, old-fashioned three-masted sailing ships, cut off at the waterline and joined together like some bizarre 'siamese twin' of a Ship. And if you happened to be out in interstellar space as the Ship whizzed by, you couldn't actually see it, because it was in another dimension and it was going far, far faster than the speed of light. But it was there, take our word for it. To understand how this Ship came to be there will take some explanation, and a good dose of imagination. First, you have to imagine a two-dimensional realm. This part is not too hard. Humans have imagined such a realm since 1884 when Edwin A. Abbot first introduced the concept in his book, Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. In this Flatland, or two-space, there is left and right, forward and back, North, East, South, and West, but no up or down. Just two dimensions, see? Now, imagine the entire galaxy in two-space. The whole, immense galaxy, with its billions of stars, solar systems and planets all compacted into a vast, flat, two dimensional disk. For humans to travel in this realm, a Ship would have to create a pocket of three-dimensional space, which could intrude into two-space like a soap bubble, existing above and below the flat surface of a vast, calm ocean. This really is no harder (indeed it is actually quite a bit easier) than imagining hyper space or other, complex, multidimensional models. And, when you think about it, it is logical that humans should travel between the stars via the simple, basic realm of two-space rather than some complex realm of multiple dimensions that nobody ever really understood anyway.

But, this simple realm has rules of its own. The laws of physics, and chemistry, and . . .  well, hell, just about everything changes here. One of the most important of these changes is that time and space are different, so that it only takes weeks or months to sail between the stars.

Another major difference in two-space is that complex technology cannot exist here. The easiest way to think of it is simply to understand that two-space has a 'grudge' against high-tech. Under the right circumstances living organisms and simple tools can exist here, but anything complex will immediately start breaking down.

People who claim to have excellent imaginations often seem to balk at this aspect of two-space. "Why can't complex technology exist in two-space?" they cry out in frustration. And the answer is, "Why can't people breathe water, or energy be created, or pi equal 3, or entropy be reversed, or pigs fly in our universe?" Different universes are going to have quaint, unique, inexplicable, incomprehensible, unpredictable and fundamentally different laws! And, as every traveler knows, if you travel to an exotic land, you'd better be prepared to accept and obey the law of the land.

So, if computers, complex space ships and other technological devices cannot exist in this realm, how then—you may ask—do you travel between the stars?

Well, our Ship, although it is a fragile, complex thing of wood, rope and canvas, is really very simple technology. Two-space tolerates it. The 'Keel' of the Ship creates a pocket of three-space that can exist in the midst of two-space. The Keel also generates gravity and warmth. (Or maybe it is two-space that provides the gravity. Nobody is really sure.) And the wood of this Ship is coated with a glowing white, two-dimensional 'Moss' that gives light and air for the passengers crowded upon its decks. (A sense of superstitious homage causes the crew to always treat the Moss and the Keel as proper nouns, as befits such wondrous, mysterious, supernatural, life-giving objects. Ancient mythology, passed on from the Elder Races, says that the Moss was Lady Elbereth's Gift, intended to keep sailors out of the freezing vacuum hell of the Elder King.)

And, by the way, that Moss becomes a sentient, two-dimensional creature, or perhaps a colony of creatures, which makes the Ship . . .  alive. Apparently much to its surprise. Thus, out of respect for this living creature that allows humans to travel upon its back between the stars, it is always referred to with a capital 'S'. It is . . .  a Ship. One hell of a Ship. One hundred and fifty feet of living grace and star-spanning power.

Oh, one last thing. The 'winds' of two-space are always exerting a constant, downward pressure. Two-space, you see, responds to our little pocket of three-space in much the same way that an oyster might react to a grain of sand. The Ship is an irritant and two-space is trying to squish it flat. Which seems only fair. So our Ship has forward leaning masts, and the downward pressure catches the canvas sails and pushes the Ship forward.

See, it is all very simple and elegant. And stunningly beautiful as we zoom in on three officers standing on the upper quarterdeck of our improbable Ship. Watch closely now, the special effects are subtle but expensive and really quite impressive.


Two of them were tall with elegant, classic, navy blue jackets. The other was short and very wide, with a red coat. They were the captain, his first officer, and their marine lieutenant.

Beneath them was the glowing white wood of their Ship. Above them a forest of luminous white masts and spars, dirty off-white canvas sails, and brown hemp rigging hummed and sang as their Ship raced between the stars. Above the central blue that they sped through, above the perpetual purple twilight of the horizon, far above the rigging of their Ship, hung stunning, achingly beautiful, crystal clear stars, constellations, and galaxies, spread thickly and densely across the black sky.

All around them a constant, faint, ethereal, music rang in their ears. Their noses breathed in the crisp air of two-space, which always smelled like new-fallen snow on a calm, clear winter morning. (Although below decks it sometimes smelled more like a locker room.)

It was a realm of beauty and wonder surpassing anything that mankind had ever known before.

And, as always, whenever sentient creatures are involved, they immediately muck it up and spoil the calm, exquisite grandeur of it all by trying to kill each other.

In this case their personal pocket paradise was marred by four other Ships coming to destroy them. Their enemy's goal was to 'sink' their Ship so that it would pop into three-space, where they would all die hideous deaths in the cold vacuum of interstellar space.

Needless to say, the three officers on the upper quarterdeck (and the small cloud of sailors and marines around them) all objected vigorously to this possibility. And therein lies our tale.


"My god, four of them!" said the first officer with a touch of despair in his voice.

"This isn't the first time people have tried to kill us," the captain replied calmly, looking at his first officer with eyes that were both less and more than human. "Lots of them, indeed most of them, are dead."

Lt. Thomas Melville was Master and Commander of Her Majesty, the Queen of Westerness' Ship, the Fang. He was the rightful captain of a sentient wooden Ship. They were traveling serenely across the shoreless seas of two-space, headed due West, two days out of Osgil with all sail set, on the long haul across the Grey Rift, between the spiral arms of the galaxy on their way to Old Earth.

Melville should have been a happy man as he and his two officers stood on the upper quarterdeck of his Ship. (His Ship, by God!) They should all have been very cheerful and lighthearted as they looked out upon the deep, dark blue of two-space, their eyes focused on the distant, purple horizon.

They existed in a world of wonder and excitement. They were young. They were victorious in past battles. The Osgil courts had declared the Fang to be a war prize and had awarded enough prize money to make them quite wealthy. And they were partaking in the greatest adventure that mankind had ever imagined: they were literally sailing among the stars.

But two of them, the captain and his first officer, were not happy. Each was responding differently to their current situation. Melville's response was fierce anger and determination. The first officer, Lt. Daniel Fielder, was worried, with a familiar, sick knot of fear welling up in his gut.

The third officer standing there was Lt. Broadax, the commander of their marine detachment. Broadax was a Dwarrowdelf in sworn service to the Crown of Westerness. She was short, squat and wide, dressed in marine red, with wild, wiry black hair jutting out from under a round iron helmet and a scraggly beard punctuating her gnarly red face and bloodshot eyes. The prospect of pending battle made her as gleeful as a piranha in a goldfish bowl.

"Hot damn! I wus afraid we wus gonna have a dull trip, an' now here comes more fun!" said Broadax, rolling her cigar across the broad, toothy smile that split the mass of gristle and hair that passed for her face.

"You didn't really think they'd let you get away with it, did you?" said Lt. Fielder, pointedly ignoring Broadax's bloodthirsty comments. "You should have known it was coming," continued the first officer. "You captured one of the Guldur frigates and they're coming to get it back."

"Hmm," replied their young captain. His response was echoed by a faint "Hmmm," from the pint-sized eight-legged alien spider-monkey on his shoulder.

Broadax and Fielder also had one of the strange little monkeys perched on their backs. The monkeys had adopted them on an alien world and the small, furry, fawn colored creatures had rapidly taken on the characteristics of their individual hosts. Melville's monkey managed to communicate an aura of calm confidence intermixed with flashes of youthful mischief and excitement. Fielder's monkey was looking over its shoulder apprehensively, craning its accordion neck in a comically anxious fashion. Broadax's monkey was bouncing up and down on her shoulder, with an excited "Eek!" escaping from it periodically.

The three of them stood shoulder-to-shoulder (or shoulder-to-hip in Broadax's case) looking out at the distant enemy sails. Melville was in the middle, providing a buffer space between his first officer and his marine lieutenant.

Melville's dog, Boye, was rubbing his head adoringly against the captain's leg. Boye had reached his full height, but he was still a puppy: awkward, skinny, ungainly, uncertain, and absolutely delighted with the world and his role in it. The dog also had a monkey perched upon his back, enjoying the world with the same puppy-like glee that radiated from its host. An ancient, tattered old Ship's cat lolled on the railing beside them, keeping a disdainful eye on the brash young puppy.

"After all," Fielder continued, "how did the Westerness ambassador on Osgil put it? 'You managed to provoke half the galaxy.'"

"Ha! Piss on that bastard," said Broadax, snarling around her cigar and twirling her battle ax in her fingers for effect. ("Eep! Eep!" echoed her monkey for emphasis, puffing on its own cigar.) "'E's dead, ain't 'e?" she continued. "An' we're alive!" ("Eek eep! Eek!") As though that trumped all other arguments in a Dwarrowdelf's mind. And there was a certain irrefutable purity to her logic.

It was true that the pompous Westerness ambassador to Osgil was dead, and they were alive in spite of the efforts of their own ambassador (and the Guldur and Orak Empires) but Fielder chose to ignore that.

"Hmm," said Melville. ("Hmmm," repeated his monkey.) The slender, gray-eyed, brown haired young captain had the top of his left ear missing, and Fielder couldn't help staring at it, wondering, not for the first time, if the sword cut that had clipped Melville's ear had also affected his hearing. Or his thinking.

"They are taking you quite seriously," Fielder continued. He had the petulant good looks of an aristocrat, and his dark hair, dark eyes, broad shoulders, bushy sideburns and glowering brows were in marked contrast with his slender young captain. "Four of their frigates, identical to ours. We can assume they're carrying their new twenty-four pounder cannons, just like us. Except they'll each have two more cannon than us, since the Osgil took two of ours." The first officer had failed to mention that the Fang virtually bristled with twelve-pounder cannons that their attackers would not have, but still the situation was grim.

"Hmm." ("Hmmm.")

"Ha!" said Broadax. ("Eek!") "They'd better take us seriously. We'll hand 'em their freakin' heads, an' send 'em to suck vacuum with the Elder King!" ("Eep! Eek!")

Their prize money had made them all wealthy, so Melville and Fielder were wearing gold-buttoned blue jackets of the finest wool, splendidly tailored. To Melville it was all so new and so much better than anything that he had ever had before, that it felt like borrowed finery.

Broadax's red coat took much more material, but it was of equal quality and splender. Their jackets were belted over white trousers, and the two naval officers each had a sword and a pistol hanging comfortably from their belts. Melville had a gold epaulet on his right shoulder, while Fielder and Broadax had one on their left, and they all had gold braid on their cuffs.

Except for the round iron helmet that seemed to be obligatory for any Dwarrowdelf, no one else on the crew wore a hat. Their faces were tanned by the weird light of the Moss that coated their Ship, and most of the crew kept their hair short due to hygiene requirements in a realm where water was one of their most precious commodities.

And everyone aboard had bare feet. The deck and most of the bare wood on the Ship was coated with the lustrous, glowing white Moss that provided light and oxygen to the crew. This Moss was also a sentient, symbiotic life form. For most members of the crew the physical contact of their bare feet on the deck provided a general empathic contact with their Ship. But for the captain the contact was much more powerful, and through his feet he could feel Fang's fierce eagerness for the approaching battle.

Melville's Ship was alive, it was feral, and it lusted for combat like a hound aching for the hunt. And the captain could not help but echo the battle-lust of his Ship.

Fielder was disconcerted by the combined effect of all the "Ha!'s" and "Hmm's," but he persisted doggedly. "They have us boxed in, but if we turn around now with all sail spread, we might be able to cut between two of them and make it back to Osgil. One advantage we have is that we're faster. With our royals, our spritsail topsail, and our studding sails we can outrun them. They might cripple us as we pass between them, but we're only two days out from Osgil. There's a chance we can limp into port, or maybe we'll get some help from Osgil naval vessels patrolling the area. But there's no chance of help in the direction we're going." Fielder's monkey continued to scan the horizon anxiously.

"Hmm." ("Hmmm.")

"Ha!" ("Eep!")

The Guldur Ships were coming at them from four directions. Two were coming from the front at the ten o'clock and two o'clock positions, and two from their rear at four o'clock and eight o'clock, closing in on the Fang with geometric perfection across the flat, blue plane of two-space, or Flatland as it was often called. The Guldur must have had advance notice of the Fang's exact route and departure time in order to do this, which implied that someone in Osgil had passed on classified information to their enemy.

Melville was deeply angered by the threat to his beloved Ship and crew, but at one level he couldn't help but feel a faint twinge of . . .  satisfaction. It wasn't that he liked having an entire evil empire try to kill him (or two evil empires, if you counted the Orak), but he took it as a kind of 'vote of confidence.' It showed that he was pissing off the very people who most deserved it.

"No," the captain finally replied. "The geometry is working against us. It will take too long to turn around. That will give them a chance to close in on us and we'd definitely have to fight two at once, and then all four could be on us if they damage us enough to slow us down. If we charge one of the bastards to our front, then we have a chance. Besides," he added with a grin, "the boys need the exercise. There's no hurry, but soon I think we'll clear for action."

"Aye! Tha's the spirit, Cap'n!" said Broadax. ("Eep! Eek!")

Fielder looked over at Broadax with a shake of his head, thinking dark thoughts about the 'Demented dwarf' and her suicidal joy of combat. Then, with a cold shock, looking at Melville's gleaming eyes and grim smile, he realized their captain shared that joy. Hell, Melville was even worse!

"I was afraid you'd say that," said the first officer. "Damn. I'd just started to become accustomed to some of the little luxuries in life. Like breathing."

"We can handle it," said Melville, with quiet confidence.

"Hoo-rah!" said Broadax, crouching and punching the air with delight. ("Eeek!" echoed her monkey, bouncing up and down on her helmet.)

"We can handle it? For God's sake, sir," Fielder hissed, trying to keep his voice down so the others on the quarterdeck wouldn't hear, "if I had an ego that big I'd be an admiral."

"No brag. Just fact," Melville replied with that fey smile and quicksilver glint in his eyes that Fielder always dreaded. "Remember Ambergris."

"Yes, but the Guldur didn't have any of their new, 24 pounder frigates opposing us in the main battle at Ambergris. And you caught them by surprise at Ambergris so they didn't know to concentrate their fire on us. And you had the whole damned Sylvan and Stolsh fleets helping you out!"

"It's simple geometry," the captain replied calmly. "We'll charge one of them, take him out in passing, and then run for it. You gotta have confidence. Remember, as Saint Blauer put it, 'If you doubt yourself while facing your opponent, you're already outnumbered.'

"Dammit, sir, we are outnumbered!" said Fielder in exasperation. "There's four of 'em!"

That brought a sincere chuckle from Melville and Broadax, and a peel of delighted eeks from their monkeys. Melville's knack for poetry brought an appropriate verse to his mind and straight to his lips.


"To every man upon the earth Death comes soon or late; And how can man die better than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods?"


This brought a growl of approval from Broadax, along with nods and satisfied grins from the quarterdeck crew. Melville had the Voice of command and authority, something that many leaders never develop, and he had a knack for poetry that could provide the right Words at the moment of truth. It made them feel larger than life and let them dip into a deep cultural reservoir of strength and courage. But those Words only served to increase Fielder's exasperation.

"Well I can think of a 'better' way to die." Fielder hissed. "Like when I'm ninety, at the hands of a jealous husband. And not in this god forsaken realm, but someplace . . . 


"Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine, And all save the spirit of man is divine."


That brought an appreciative chuckle from Melville. He loved it when Fielder turned poetry back upon him, and his first officer had gotten fairly good at it, perhaps out of sheer self defense.

"Captain," Fielder continued, "all they have to do is get one lucky shot. If they take down one mast or one spar, that could slow us enough for the rest to catch up, and then it will be four to one, with us even further away from any possible help. Captain, we need to turn about."

"If they damage us enough to slow us down, then we'll maneuver and take them out one-by-one. We can handle them one at a time. Now go take command of the lower quarterdeck and give the order. Clear for action." And there, there was that insane, fell, fey grin again.

"I guess we'll have to call off the pistol match on the lower deck," Melville continued glumly. The captain took pride in his pistol skill. Pistol marksmanship was one area where he had a chance of winning a Ship-wide match, and he was truly sorry that the competition had to be canceled. Oh well, he thought, just one more score to settle with the bastards attacking us.

Fielder looked at his captain in dismay. We are about to die, he thought, we're outnumbered four-to-one, and the crazy bastard is sorry that the pistol match had to be called off. Besides, he added to himself, I'd have beaten the pompous, poetry prating, prat bastard.

"Very good, sir," Fielder responded, feeling himself sink into a familiar, fatalistic funk. It was almost like an old friend coming back. A most unwelcome old friend who drank all your beer, ate all your food and left his stinky, smelly laundry everywhere.

Broadax just laughed as Fielder saluted and left, while her monkey capered joyfully on her helmet.

Then Melville gave the command that would set the battle into motion. "Quartermaster, point us straight at the enemy Ship to our two o'clock."

"Aye, sir," the quartermaster replied, beaming with pleasure as he spun the wheel to the right. "Two o'clock and straight at 'em it is."

"Where are we going, and why am I in this handbasket?" muttered Fielder as he headed down the ladder to the lowerside.


The quarterdeck personnel (consisting of the quartermaster and his two mates, the midshipman of the watch, and the marine guard) had all been paying careful attention, subtly straining and unobtrusively shifting to hear the words spoken by the three officers at the rail.

After Fielder left, Lt. Broadax turned to check on the status of the quarterdeck's marine guard. When the guard saw her looking at him he snapped to attention, but this was Private Dwakins and he had a very short 'attention span.' Broadax nodded at him as she started to pass by, and her nod was Dawkins' cue to revert back to his normal, slack-jawed slump as he asked a question. "Lewtenat, yew don't think thar'll be combat, dew yah?"

Dwakins was one of the new recruits they had picked up on Osgil. Broadax looked up at him with a confident smile. Now was the time for leadership and motivation. Broadax had been a private, a corporal and a sergeant, and had just recently been reluctantly promoted to lieutenant after many happy years as an NCO. She was the product of huge doses of marine leadership and motivation over the years, and she had learned her lessons well. Now she proudly took one of her favorite lines and served it up to the young private, savoring every word.

"Whassa matter, Dwakins?" said Broadax. "Ye wanna live forever? Remember what they told ye when ye joined up! 'In blood ye were born, in blood ye shall live an' in blood ye shall die!'"

"Damn," replied the private. "Ah don't remember 'em tellin' me that part when ah joined up."

"Oh?" said Broadax, momentarily disconcerted.

"Well, hell, ah think if'n they'd a tol' me that, I might'a not signed up."

"Don't try ta think, dammit! Ye'll jist hurt yerself."

"I'm sure I'd a remembered that," Dwakins continued, with a look of cross-eyed concentration on his face. "Ah don't know how ah missed it! An', ya know, now that ah thinks about it, ah would like ta live forever. Or at least for quite a while longer."

Her best shot at motivation having failed, Broadax fell back on 'Plan B,' the tried-and-true, time tested technique that had been mastered by a thousand generations of NCO's. When the enemy has you off balance, go on the attack.

"Dwakins, I think the lifeguard shoulda pulled ye out o' the gene pool a looong time ago."

"Wull yeah, 'cause muh skin gits all wrinkled up if'n ah spends too much time in the water." Then he remembered to add, "Mah'yam," giving the proper respectful title to a female officer. At least he had been told she was female, although he had significant doubts on that matter.

Dwakins had repulsed her first two assaults with the innocent ease of the truly oblivious, but Broadax's main force was standing by in reserve, waiting to cut him off at the knees. "Dwakins," she said, looking up at him with baleful glare of her beady, bloodshot eyes. A glare made all the more effective because it was a concentrated essence, trapped in the narrow band between the iron Dwarrowdelf helmet and her beard, "Ye shut the hell up, pay attention to yer duty, and fight when I damned well tell ye to fight! Or I'll kick yer tail so hard ye'll be eatin' out o' yer rectum! Ye got that?"

"Yes, mah'yam!" he gulped. Dwakins was overwhelmed with relief. Marine motivation and clever insults confused him, but threats now, threats he could handle.

If only he could figure out what a "wreckdum" was.


The quarterdeck personnel were all grinning at each other after they heard their captain give the order to prepare for combat. Young Mr. Anthony Hayl was the Midshipman on duty, and he listened in confusion as the sailors smiled confidently and whispered over his head. They were all trying to look wise and intelligent, generally with indifferent success.

"Our Cap'n's a real fire eater."

"Aye, he's a right plucked one, an' lucky ta boot."

"'We'll take 'em all on,' 'e sez!"

"Aye, an mebbee we'll board one o' the bastards an' make sum more prize muney!"

Each of the crew had one of the eight-legged spider monkeys perched on his shoulder, and the monkeys were echoing their hosts' ferocious enthusiasm for the approaching combat.

Hayl had just come aboard the Fang a few days ago. At twelve years old he was as green and inexperienced as any crewman or officer that ever was, but he already had a soft, furry, eight-legged monkey perched on his shoulder.

The baby monkeys always appeared when no one was looking. How they reproduced and where they came from was a mystery. When they first arrived they were palm sized and dappled like a fawn.

Hayl's monkey had shown up two days ago and had clung to him tenaciously ever since. The monkeys had a weird, upside-down face that could be pulled into their thorax on an accordion neck. When it came up out of the thorax, its mouth came out first, then its nose and eyes, and finally its neck. Right now Hayl's monkey shared its master's uncertainty, clinging tight to the boy's shoulder with its jug-eared head pulled back into its thorax. The only thing you could see was a hairy half-moon sunk into its fluffy chest, with its chittering teeth on top, and its nose and part of its eyes peering out fearfully.

Hayl was reaching up and stroking his tiny monkey, making reassuring noises and wishing he had a hole that he could pull his head into. Just off hand, it looked to him like Lt. Fielder was the only sane person on board, while the captain—and everyone else on the Ship—was stark, raving mad. He had been raised on Osgil, it was his home, and all his instincts said, "Run! Run away! Go home!" But the captain said fight, so fight they would.

And as he faced his first sea battle at the tender age of twelve, young Midshipman Hayl was a very frightened, homesick boy.

* * *

Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
And a verse of a Lapland song
Is haunting my memory still
'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth
are long, long thoughts.'

"My Lost Youth"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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