“Attack of Mechopus”
Benjak woke to an explosion of sound. A howling alarm whooping with urgency and finality. Saying, Get up or we all die.
Everyday might bring Benjak’s death. A reality of hauling barrels of spice from the southern colonies all the way under and up the curving coast to the empire’s motherland. Whales despised humans sailing through their waters. Sharks could taste a drop of blood miles away. Other vessels who preferred piracy over honest work possessed the usual threat to profit.
Then there were the toadies.
Knuckling his eyes, he swung his legs outside of hammock and let his bare feet dangle. All around the horn continued to blare. Whoever turned the crank insisted that whatever threatened Haba required every man’s attention. Except Benjak felt no blows shocking the ship’s hull. No bullet holes in the hull. There was a bit more rocking then usual but–
Someone ran into Benjak’s legs, nearly sending him backward to spin in a tangle with his hammock.
“Oye!” he shouted sleepily, steadying himself and yawning while trying to keep his seat. “What all the noise so late about?”
A girl barely old enough to leave home stopped in her tracks and looked back over her shoulder. She had a smattering of freckles on apple-like cheeks, burnished hair cut in a practical bob sticking out from a nit cab, and a scar across her brow that told this was actually not her first haul.
Other people ran about, pulling on pants and boots, whatever passed for their own sense of minimum modesty as they headed above deck, cattle driven by the alarm’s prodding. Dangling lanterns swung from brushes with indifferent shoulders.
The girl said with haste, “Attack, sir. The bosum called down. Said toadies are risin’ from the deep.”
Benjak was already leaping from his hammock and practically stepping into his boats upon landing.
He shrugged on his suspenders, shook off the sleep sticking to his brain like raw cotton, and said to the girl, “Whattcha waitin’ for then, missy? We got toadies to kill and cargo for delivery. Move!”
Behind him the girl shouted. “You stopped me, sir!”
A grinding and screeching of metal joints, the groan of a struggling hull, the screams of men and women all greeted Benjak as he burst above deck. Except the ship was not under attack.
All around them, the crew of the Haba rushed to the ship’s starboard side railing. Some climbed the latters leading up the steam stacks at the ship’s bow so they could look out over the heads of the taller crew. They need not look far. Nor were taller heads blocking the view.
The mechanized octopus was taller than any ship Benjak had seen. Even the empire’s navy didn’t have a vessel to revival the size of the gigantic metal cephalopod. Its tentacles reached out from the depths of the sea, whipping and curling around the body of a luxury vessel. That is where the screaming originated. Some sea sick captain of a cruise had taken his passengers out over night and into a trading route, to where pirates and toadies hunted. The pleasure cruise had no weapons and was not built for speed. They were ripe for the picking. Easy prey for the toadies rebellious acts against the empire.
A handful of desperate cruise passengers attempted to load themselves into one of the ship’s few rescue boats.
Another tentacle shot out from the foaming sea, its spiked tip crashing through the little boat the passengers sought salvation aboard.
The sound of a fragile twig snapping underneath the stomp of a heavy boot and the crushing of bone tore through the air. Dark silhouettes fell to the waiting tentacles, breaking against the metal, cries choking. Then the broken bodies slipped beneath the depths.
Benjak clenched his hands into fists and gnashed his teeth.
In the distance, the sun began to rise. The once black sky turning grey as the clouds caught the first pink of dawn.
The light illuminated the terror rising from the deep. Its limbs a golden brass color, segmented by black joints. Little specks of glow could be faintly made out. Gears turning. Spurts of steam from exhaust pipes. A glass dome rose from atop of the octo vessel’s head, forward of the bulbous mantle.
Benjak willed his fingers to loosen.
He raised his voice.
“Whattcha waitin’ for you lugs?!” The Haba’s crew turned from the railing, to the source of the interruption. All of them appeared shaken from a nightmare. Truly awake.
Not one for speeches or to spout orders, Benjak sprinted across the deck to a depressed foot peddle. He stomped on the brass peddle and stepped back. Two trap doors unfolded. From below, a platform rose with a gunner’s chair and a cannon at the front.
Behind him Benjak heard other gunner stations rising and unfolding from below deck, the crew working to arm the mounted cannons.
Benjak bent and started to connect steam shuts into intake valves, feed ammo belts into slots below the cannon’s base. As he worked quickly he regretted leaving his goggles behind. The smoke from chair’s discharge pipes stunk and–
The girl with the scar across her brow, the one who’d knocked into Benjak below deck, fell to her knees and took ammo belts from Benjak.
Benjak stared down at the girl in confusion.
She noticed his sudden frozen state and without stalling her hands from their business she looked him in the eye and said, “Whatcha waiting for? Get on up and sink those toadies, aye.”
Benjak nodded firmly.
From his trousers’ deep pockets he pulled a set of leather gloves and pulled them on while climbing into his gunner’s chair.
In the distance the bosun yelled for the boys in the engine room to shove more fuel into the furnaces and for the pilot to bring the Haba back around.
The air around the main deck became thick with black smoke as the ship swung her lard ass around. She was made for hauling, the Haba, not for sea battles. But she had teeth and was prepared to bite back at anyone who had the bollocks to try and board her and pillage her belly.
The girl with the scar showed Benjak a thumbs up. She had armed his cannon and made sure his power connections were firmly plugged.
No time to check the gauges and meters. He could hear the strain of the cruise’s belly pressed to the limit, ready to pop.
Benjak’s hands slapped onto his cannon’s handles. He curled his index fingers over the dual triggers. Then he squeezed.
The twin barrels spewed fire.
To either side of his gunner’s platform, Benjak heard the ping-plink of spent casings hitting the deck.
All along the desk the Haba’s gunner stations rang out with the same music. The ship rocked, swinging starboard, dipping one side toward the sea, spraying foam.
Sea spittle hit Benjak in the face, burning his eyes, the salt bitter in his mouth. He wished for his goggles.
Some of the rounds from the Haba glanced off the octopus’ reinforced hide harmlessly. Some found paths into the joints. Geyers of steam shot out along with blots and other metal bits.
Concentrating his fire on a single tentacle Benjak meant to cripple the limb, ruin the mechanisms that allowed its loose whipping.
Cheers went from the crew as one limb did go dead. Its hold on the cruise ship slackening as it slithered back into the sea, each joint sparking.
Dawn had turned the sea from inky black to a blue. That blue near the dead tentacle turned back to dark crud as oil spoiled the morning color.
Another of the seven remaining–now six–limbs fell back into the sea. Where once the cruise was listing, threatening to topple away from the grasp of the toadie’s mechanized creature, the ship was righting itself.
Two of the Haba gunners began to concentrated fire on the dome in the octopus’ head. The glass cracked within several heartbeats.
Benjak felt his cannon sigh emptily, the tension around his chair relaxing as if whole station were exhaling after drawing in a long breath.
The scarred girl immediately began to load more ammo into the Benjak’s cannon, feeding another belt.
“You got a name?” Benjak called down to the girl with the freckles and scar.
Across the short span of sea between the Haba and the cruise ship, the octopus lost interest in the latter and unfurled its six limb grip from the cruise ship.
Three of the remaining functioning arms slapped the sea, sending a large wave toward the Haba, rocking her back to port.
Water lapped onto the deck. Everyone held on without the bosun yelling for them to brace themselves.
Arms curled around the bottom of the gunner station, the girl looked up at Benjak. A small spark of fear flickered in her eyes but that spark she quickly smothered. “Names Roz, sir.”
The Haba rolled back starboard as the sea retreated.
Benjak looked over the water and witnessed the metal octopus whirl around and shot toward the Haba. Gears clicked and clacked. Steam vomited from pipes in the mantle. Lights across the head flashed angrily.
“Hold on, Roz,” Benjak shouted down. “Here comes the real fight!”
The octopus raised two functioning tentacles, their shadows immediately blocking out the first rays of dawn’s glow like the approach of twin giants.
Fingers squeezing the triggers, Benjak shouted obscenities at the falling tentacles, cursing them to hell as bullets spewed from his twin cannons