• Published 1st Mar 2019
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Haycartes' Pluperfect Method - Kris Overstreet

Twilight Sparkle has trapped herself in a shelf full of books. Will she survive- or will she lose herself to the story?

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BRAY TO QUARTERS Chapter 18: the Next Day

Twilight awoke to the sun in her eyes- the dawn sun, freshly raised by Celestia, just come up over the horizon. She looked around herself, at the ship under her, the featureless ocean around the ship, the cloudless skies.

Shoot, she thought, I thought this stupid story was over.

The detached feeling she’d had as she’d given orders for securing the survivors of Cumpleanos, for setting a course for Panamane, had made her think that maybe, just maybe, the spell was letting her go. Surely the battle was the climax of the novel, right? How much falling action did the writer need to wrap up their sick and twisted tale of murder and insanity, already?

She vaguely remembered Axle Wheel bringing her a fresh uniform, then guiding her to that hammock-chair, and the smell of hot oatmeal. She must have fallen asleep in the chair… and slept for how long? The sun hadn’t been lowered yet when she last remembered it, and here it was, freshly raised and climbing in the metal-blue sky. So… ten hours? Twelve? Granted that she’d had only four hours of sleep the night before, in the middle of what would have been the two worst days of her life if they’d been real…

Sighing, Twilight levered herself out of the hammock-chair. If she was awake and still on the Lydia, she doubtless had work to do. There by the wheel stood Thornbush, looking like he hadn’t had a bit of sleep all night- and probably he hadn’t. The jury mizzenmast appeared to be holding up well, though more than half the lines had been spliced from one cannon-shot or another, and the sails had enough holes and tears in them to qualify them, in some places, as lace.

Twilight noticed the sounds coming to her ears; the non-stop clanking of the pumps, which spewed out water so clear and untainted by bilge that it must be coming in as fast as it was going out… which meant Lydia remained in serious danger of sinking. Hammers rang around the ship, as Dowel and his mates worked to mend the furrowed and splintered decks and rails.

But, despite the blood-stains still on the deck, there were signs of repairs everywhere Twilight looked- and, also, of battle-readiness. The guns had all been secured, the breeches tamped against seawater and rust, the bulkheads replaced.

And there… all along the port side of the ship… wrapped bodies. Twilight counted them: twenty-four. Add that to the fourteen buried after the first day’s battle… thirty-eight dead. Even taking into account the fact that some of the wounded from the first day must have died of their wounds, a conservative guess would put eighty ponies in the orlop, suffering in the near-darkness.

One hundred twenty dead or wounded, and probably two-thirds of the latter would join the former in a matter of days. One-third of Lydia’s original crew, gone. By a strange coincidence, the prisoners taken from Cumpleanos also numbered about one hundred and twenty, forty of those wounded to various degrees. If the survivors could be trusted, Twilight could almost make good her losses…

Dear Celestia, she thought, her head spinning with the sudden realization, I killed over four hundred ponies. Four hundred ponies!

And over three hundred yet live, Hornsparker’s memories thought. But not if this ship sinks, and not if they’re left to Lowly’s incompetent hooves. A disgusted note entered into the mental voice. Thornbush understands this better than I do. Look at everything he’s accomplished while I lazed about!

Twilight did look, and was impressed. Lydia was holding the course she’d ordered before passing out, even though the wind had shifted round almost due northeast, forcing the frigate to lay as close to the wind as she could in her crippled condition. Despite all the damage, all the scars of cannonballs, the ship was ready to fight again on a moment’s notice. Though leaking like a sieve, Lydia wasn’t riding low in the water, which meant the pumps must have gained a little on the ocean.

And- this was the important bit- aside from the dozen or so crew ponies manning the sails and wheel, and Dowel and his helpers, the crew was below, resting. Thornbush had had the presence of mind to know that, after two terrible days, everypony on the ship needed rest… especially the ponies who took turns at the pumps. If and when Lydia needed them, the crew would be as fresh and ready as could be expected- despite fighting an enemy ship and an unpredictable sea.

“Mr. Thornbush…” Twilight shook her head and dropped the formal honorific. “Thornbush, you’ve done an excellent job. I can’t thank you enough.”

Thornbush, still looking exhausted, had the mental alertness to be slightly embarrassed. Hornsparker, Twilight noted, could be extremely sparing with his praise. The first lieutenant shuffled his forehooves and said, “Well, today is Sunday, isn’t it, ma’am? Captain’s inspection.”

“The ship passes,” Twilight said simply. “A magnificent job.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

I must give special mention of Thornbush in my after-action report, Hornsparker muttered.

Twilight shook her head again to clear it of thoughts of paperwork- such a tempting thing, right now, nice, clean, un-bloodied paperwork- and said, “Considering what this ship has been through, Thornbush, the fact we’re even still afloat, never mind doing as well as we are, constitutes a miracle. And you’re responsible. We wouldn’t be here without you.”

The more Twilight spoke, the more embarrassed Thornbush looked. “Only my duty, ma’am,” he mumbled.

“Only your duty? Ponies have won medals for less!” Twilight said. “When we get home, ponies will point and say, ‘There goes Thornbush! He was first of Lydia when she took on Cumpleanos! He kept the ship from sinking!”

“Oh, ma’am, I’m sure they’ll barely notice me,” Thornbush said. “They’ll be talkin’ about Captain Hornsparker, who took a frigate against a ship of the line and sank her.”

Hardly a ship of the line, Hornsparker thought. Fifty years ago, possibly. Just barely. But come to think of it, fifty years old would be about right…

“Yes,” Twilight said. “How much did it cost us to sink her, Thornbush?”

“So far, thirty-eight dead, seventy-eight wounded,” Thornbush said. “Not countin’ th’ wounded prisoners, ma’am.” There followed a host of names, most of which had only a faint impression even on Hornsparker’s mind. She recognized the name of Wranglin’, one of the fourteen ponies who had been caught in the chaos when a thirty-two pound cannonball had torn through the starboard pump room. He had stood before the captain’s mast for his spitting habit for the last time.

And then Thornbush came to the list of officers and warranted ponies killed or injured: “… Summer Breeze, sailing master’s mate; Chicken Winner and Cliff Clinger, bosun’s mates, killed in action; Lieutenant Wildrider, third lieutenant, Captain Court Summons, commander of marines, Midshipman Cherry Mustang, and four other warrant officers wounded.”

“What?” Twilight asked. “Wildrider? Mustang? Summons? All wounded?”

“Aye, ma’am.” Thornbush’s embarrassment was a distant memory, now, replaced by grim acceptance of the horrors of war. “Summons took an arrow to the leg from a sharpshooter. Mustang got clipped in th’ head by a splinter, like me.” He pointed to the dirty bandage under his cocked hat. “If th’ gangrene doesn’t set in, they’ll be fine. But Wildrider…” His frown deepened. “He took a cannonball to th’ rear legs, almost in th’ last shots we took from Cumpleanos. They’re smashed, ma’am. They’ll have to come off.”

A double amputation means death is four times as likely, Hornsparker thought. And even if he lives… I’m afraid he won’t be charming any more mares. And an earth pony with only his forelegs has but few prospects in the world… except to be an object of pity and scorn by the able-bodied…

If you can’t be helpful, be quiet! Twilight thought savagely. “Lowly’s not up to it,” she said. “I’ll have to do it. Where’s Gerard?”

“Below, ma’am,” Thornbush said. “He’s due to come up at eight bells to relieve me.”

“I see. Well, be sure you get some rest, okay, Thornbush? I’m sorry to say it, but you look terrible.”

“Ma’am!” Thornbush sounded slightly offended. “I am perfectly fit and ready for duty!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I order you to get eight hours of rest once Gerard relieves you,” she said. “Then you’ll be even more fit and ready for duty!”

“Aye, ma’am,” Thornbush sighed, resigned to his fate of unwanted rest.

“Well, there you are,” Iron Press said as Twilight stepped down into the orlop. The deck ran almost stem to stern, illuminated by only a few lanterns, and a pony could barely step without putting a hoof on some wounded crewmate. Some of the wounded cried, others moaned in pain, and somewhere in the darkness one was singing a sad, hopeless song about dying thousands of miles from home.

And there, in the middle of it all, was the Canterlot unicorn noble, his fancy shirt bloody up to the elbows, tending to one of the wounded while Lowly watched helplessly. A row back, Press’s donkey servant stood and waited impassively, content to remain where he was until issued an order.

“This gentlepony of yours,” Iron Press said, making no attempt to hide the scorn in the word gentlepony, “has no idea of his duties. Poppy juice to shut them up, dirty bandages on top of dirty bandages, never a thought of clean air or clean water. And some of these ponies require surgery, Captain, and I for one am not qualified for that.”

Neither was Twilight, not really. But she’d done it once already, and her reading and her time in Celestia’s School made her less unqualified than either Lowly or Iron Press. “All right,” she said. “I’ll do what I can. Who is the worst off?”

She’d expected to be brought to Wildrider, considering what Thornbush had said. Instead Twilight watched as Iron Press pointed to the pony at his hooves. “This pony has a large splinter under her skin,” he said. “If it stays in, she’ll die. If it is extracted, she’ll probably live.”

Twilight made a quick examination of the pony in question. There was a small entrance wound on the pony’s left barrel, a horrible-looking bruise that covered almost the entire chest, and a grotesque pointed bulge just under her right armpit. At a glance the splinter had been deflected by the ribs, instead making a destructive track under the skin and muscle all the way around and not quite exiting the other side.

There’s no way something this freaky could happen in real life, Twilight thought. This is the author at work again, finding new and horrible ways to disgust the reader. To Lowly she said, “Go to the cook. Take your instruments. Wash them in freshly boiled water- like you were supposed to wash the bandages,” she added pointedly. “Then bring some more boiled water and the instruments down here.” To Iron Press she asked, “Did he show you where the medicinal spirits are?”

“Yes, but I hardly think-“

“They’re the only thing we have that can numb pain,” Twilight said. “That and the poppy juice, but I suspect too much poppy juice has gone round already.”

“Oh, very well,” Iron Press said.

Twilight paid no mind to the tone, looking down at the wounded pony. “Windmill, is it?” she asked. “Windmill, I’m sorry, but we have to cut you open to get that splinter out. It is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. But if we don’t, you won’t make it.” She managed a half-smile as she added, “But the good news is, you get a nice strong dose of rum with it.”

Windmill smiled, but said nothing. Even breathing looked painful for her, and Twilight didn’t want to think what talking must be like.

The two hours that followed got blotted out of Twilight’s memories, except the facts. What the mind cannot deal with, it blots out, and thus Twilight forgot the sight of spurting blood from the first incision into Windmill’s skin, the horrible gore still clinging to the sawblade-edged bit of wood that finally came out, the involuntary screams from the pony that faded to limp, gasping whimpers as Twilight sutured up the wounds. Then followed two more surgeries by lantern light, with more rum and more screaming.

But the sight of the pale, almost lifeless Wildrider, legs in tatters and tourniquets tied almost up to his flanks, remained indelibly in Twilight’s mind afterwards. The clumsy whist player and the skilled seducer of mares looked at her with eyes that didn’t quite focus, tongue thickened by a heavy dose of poppy juice, and said, “Ma’am, please pardon my not coming to attention.”

Twilight wanted to run. Twilight wanted to jump over the rail and find the first shark big enough for her to swim down its throat. She wanted to do anything, absolutely anything, except be here, right now, doing this.

But instead she said, “It’s all right, lieutenant. I understand.”

And, in her magic, she put the bonesaw into the fresh pot of boiled water and began to scrub it clean, preparing for another operation her mind would refuse to recall afterwards.

In the two hours Twilight spent excising three splinters and amputating five limbs, five more of the wounded died. In that two hours ventilation finally came to the lower decks, as Gerard got around to replacing the ventilation shafts up on deck, and the stench of wounds and wounded was replaced by clean, moving air. Iron Press made suggestions, and the wounded able to be moved were carried up into the sun and clean air and away from what Twilight knew had to be a disease pit, while those who had to remain were brought hot food and the cleanest available water.

And through it all- through the surgeries, the screaming, the blood, the bodily wastes, the death, and the fighting for life, Iron Press stood beside Twilight, helping where he could, but mostly just being there.

Finally Twilight could take no more, and when she went back to the upper decks, Iron Press followed. “Thank you, captain,” he said once they came out onto the gun deck. “I dread to think how things would go if left to that useless steward.”

“I ought to be thanking you, milord,” Twilight replied. “This wasn’t your job, you know.”

“It was a job that needed doing,” Iron Press said simply. “How could I not do it?”

Isn’t he a marvel? Hornsparker thought. Who would have thought a Canterlot noble would be so… so… dutiful?

And Twilight, noting the tone in that mental voice, thought: Uh-oh.

Now I know why the story isn’t over yet…

Author's Note:

Allergies and business (and a hotel internet outage) prevented my updating Saturday or Sunday. Sorry.

This project really doesn't lend itself to the short filler chapters I put into The Maretian. And once I get to the next book and start taking greater departures (now that the format is more or less established), I don't know if that situation will get better or worse...

By the way, the orlop is the lowest internal deck, just above the hold and the bilges. It's below the waterline and almost totally shut off from any natural light source. And on a sailing ship in the days before proper hygiene, it's a stinkhole at the best of times.

Now cram a hundred wounded crew into that space- tight enough that the bodies have to press against one another- and imagine... no, don't imagine. Whatever you're imagining, the reality would be worse.

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