R.L. Keck Fiction
R.L. Keck Fiction

New Projects

I have a new series simmering on the back burner of my mind. The Orion Chronicles will introduce us to new characters--some familiar ones--and a host of fresh adventures.

Here is a small glimpse at the introduction. As usual, I solicit comments from my readers.

 

Chapter 1

 

Vanubiti Island

Oceania

6°06’49.15” S

177°20’46.28” E

Christmas Day, 1874

Waves crashed over the lagoon’s protective barrier reef as the hurricane lashed the island with one hundred seventy-five kilometers per hour winds, and its accompanying five-meter wind-driven storm surge. The slow-moving storm dwarfed the tiny island and had been battering its two hundred inhabitants for the last three hours. Nothing remained of the villagers’ huts—the storm surge having swept them away, and the few natives who still lived sought higher ground among the wooded slopes leading to the extinct volcano at the east end of the island.

The storm’s eye—wider than the island’s length twice over—was expected within the hour. Its arrival would allow the inhabitants precious time to recover and get to safety before the back side of the storm fell on them.

Under cover of the storm, a large, three-mast ship had arrived and struggled to hold station just beyond the reef, its bow staring into the wind. A lone man put ashore and hurried across the narrow beach, disappearing into the tree line. He searched for a survivor, a very special survivor, whose inexplicable existence had summoned him across time. As the captain of the ship, he assumed the responsibility for the mission and the task of locating the individual. He would not delegate this to any other; the burden of the mission’s implication belonged to him alone: Captain Sir Geoffrey Perceval Matheson III, née of His Majesty’s Special Air Service.

 

Zebulun Mbutae stood at Orion’s rail, his back to the howling wind and stinging rain. One hand grasped the weathered wood for support, while the other pressed a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He scanned the distant beach for any sign.

Through the dim gray light provided by the overcast sky he saw…nothing.

“Damn.” The tall African lowered the glasses and wiped rain and seawater from his face. He checked the contraband timepiece strapped to his wrist, shook his head at the hour, then pressed his earpiece. “Captain, if you can hear me, you must hurry.”

Crackling static was the reply.

“Damn him.”

A loud flapping drew his attention. He glanced into the rigging, noticed its condition, and crossed himself. The topsail had come loose, but two Able Seamen clambered aloft to get the canvas reefed. “Done all we can. It’s in God’s hands.”

Zeb called to the coxswain at the helm. “Keep her pointed into the wind.”

He felt the vibration of Orion’s stabilizers through the deck planks as they struggled to keep the ship steady in the churning sea. Zeb wedged himself between the aft bulkhead and the rail for support and peered through the glasses. As the deck pitched and rolled, the first mate resumed his search of the tree line on the beach.

Still nothing.

“What is keeping you?”

A tremendous gust slammed against the hull, forcing Orion’s bow to port. Zeb heard the splintering of wood over the howl of the storm, lowered the glasses, and turned in time to see the foremast snap and fall into the churning water, the two Able Seamen swept under. The brails went taut as the weight of the mast pulled against them, pinning another Seaman against the gunwale.

“Cut those lines,” he ordered.

 “We might be able to save them.” Bo’sun Katsaros shouted as she struggled to reach the port side.

“It’s a sea-anchor now. Cut it loose or we’ll founder.”

“Aye, aye.” The bo’sun signaled to two idle Seamen. They staggered from their posts to assist freeing the length of timber and sails drawing Orion’s keel inexorably to port.

The deck beneath Zeb’s feet shuddered, a sharp crack sounded through the planking, and he knew they had lost one of the stabilizers.

The ship slewed violently to port, exacerbated by the sea anchor effect from the broken mast. The deck rolled through twenty degrees.

“For the love of…” Zeb began.

“We need the shields.” Bo’sun Katsaros said as she wrestled with the lines.

Zeb shook his head. “No, the captain said.”

She glared at him, shoved her helpers aside, then drew her ax and severed the snarl of tangled lines in four fierce strokes. She lifted the injured Seaman from the deck. “Take him below. Tell Doc what happened.”

The bo’sun’s two assistants retrieved their companion and trundled aft toward the lower hatch.

“It’s not a ‘him,’” Zeb said and wiped salt spray from his eyes.

Bo’sun Katsaros said nothing but moved forward to inspect what remained of the foremast.

Zeb felt the Orion shift to starboard, the bow once more in the wind. He returned to the rail and scanned the beach. Palm fronds chased one another across the open space as the wind blew, but Captain Matheson was still absent.

Sighing, he turned to the ship’s bo’sun. “Phaedra, can you make repairs in this weather?”

Bo’sun Katsaros shrugged. “If the eye moves over us, perhaps.”

“See to it, if you please.”

“It would be easier with the shields.”

Zeb shook his head. “No shields.”

Phaedra Katsaros leveled a hard gaze at Zeb. “You’re a hard man, Zeb. Without the shields, we’ll likely lose more men.”

“They’re not men. And, the Captain said, no…”

“Yeah, no shields. Fine.” She turned and stomped through standing water on the deck toward the hatch to the forward hold. She signaled three more Seamen to follow her below.

“…do you copy?” static blocked most of the signal, but Zeb caught his boss’s voice over the comm link.

He moved to the rail and stared toward the island, now visible only during intermittent breaks in the curtains of rain that draped the view. “I copy. Captain, where are you? This storm is driving the ship too close to the reef. We need to leave.”

Matheson’s voice, clearer, and irritatingly calm, spoke in Zeb’s ear. “Working on it. Just a little longer. How is my ship?”

“We lost the foremast, and one of the stabilizers just went offline. It’s getting rough out here.”

“Can you hold her together a bit longer, old chap?”

“Phaedra is working on the mast replacement. I’ll get Pieter checking on the stabilizer.”

“That’s a good man. Any crew casualties?”

“Lost two for sure—went over the side. One damaged when the mast fell. Otherwise, we’re good.”

“Bloody hell. Could be worse, I suppose. All right, I’ve got to go. Won’t be much longer. This place is a mess.”

“If the storm worsens, we may need to raise the shields.”

“Not an option, Zeb. We discussed this. I’m trusting you to keep it together. I really must go now. Cheerio.”

Zeb banged the side of his fist on the rail in frustration. “Damn.” He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, then called the ship’s engineer. “Pieter, do you copy?”

“Copy. What’s up?”

“We lost a stabilizer. Can you check it out? We need to get it back online.”

“I’m already on it. No promises. It’s taken quite a beating with this storm.”

“Do what you can. But hurry.”

“Roger. Out.”

Zeb climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck and stood beside the coxswain. The blank-faced helmsman worked to keep the ship steady into the wind as ordered.

Orion held position one hundred yards beyond the protective reef, but it was not a simple task, and Zeb knew all the ship’s systems worked overtime to keep her afloat and on station.

“Can’t keep this up much longer.” He cast another glance back toward the beach.

A rogue wave crashed against the port side sending a shudder through the hull. Zeb felt it and closed his eyes…waiting. The bow slewed to starboard, the wheel rotated, lifting the helmsman off the deck, as the final stabilizer failed.

Zeb grabbed the wheel and fought to bring it back. If the waves struck broadside, they could capsize.

They were drifting closer to the reef as each successive wave forced the ship back.

“Zeb,” Phaedra’s voice barked on the earpiece.

“I’m busy. What is it?”

“Unless you hold steady, I cannot make repairs. Impossible in these conditions.”

“I understand.”

“And I think we just lost the last stabilizer. We need the shields.”

“But the cap…”

“Dammit, Zeb, think about it. Main propulsion is offline, and with no stabilizers, we’ll be dashed against the reef. For god’s sake, man, do something, or we’ll be killed.”

The wheel strained against him, and Zeb locked his elbow around a spoke, freeing up a hand. He touched his earpiece to give the order.

Would the captain approve? Or, will I lose my job? Dammit, Captain, why are we here?

“Pieter,” Zeb had to shout to be heard over the clamor.

“Go ahead, Zeb.”

A beam of sunlight pierced the clouds, shining down on Zeb’s hand. He glanced up and smiled. And as the winds died away, he said, “How is the work on the stabilizer going?”

“Port side almost back online. But you realize we lost starboard stabilization.”

“Yes, I felt it. Do what you can. Out.”

As the Orion entered the eye of the hurricane, the seas laid down, and brilliant sunlight bathed the entire ship. Zeb released the helm and stepped away, leaning on the railing.

“Phaedra, will this help?”

He needed no reply from the bo’sun. He could see her and her crew at work removing the remnant of the foremast.

Zeb lifted the glasses and searched across the calm of the storm’s eye. Based on the hurricane’s speed, he estimated they had two hours before the back side of the storm moved over them. Not the best, but it would have to do.

“Phaedra, you have one hour. I cannot promise more.”

“It will do. Now leave me alone to do my job.”

An hour later, the broken foremast had been removed and tossed overboard, and the new mast set into position. As the bo’sun’s helpers scrambled up the new mast to attach the rigging, Zeb called to Phaedra.

“How much longer?”

“Half an hour at least.”

“Not likely. Looks like the storm is turning. Our window is closing.”

“Is the captain ready to leave?”

“I have not heard from him.”

“Send the small boat now. That will save time.”

“Good idea.” Zeb descended the ladder to the main deck and summoned two seamen. “Take the small boat to the beach and wait for the captain.” Simultaneous green flashes from the two affirmed their understanding, then they were at their task, lowering the small boat and rowing toward the beach.

Zeb turned his attention toward the beach. “Captain, do you copy?”

Static.

“I hear you, Zeb. Can you send the small boat? I believe I’m ready to depart.”

Zeb relaxed his shoulders and exhaled. “Aye, aye, Captain. The small boat is on its way.”

He surveyed the repair work on the mast, then, satisfied the bo’sun had control, went to his cabin.

Seated at the small desk in the corner, he opened his journal to make an entry. Several of his personal items lay strewn over the desktop. These he put back where they belonged. The framed photo lay on its face, a casualty of the rough seas. Zeb righted it and smiled at the image.

Standing before a grass hut, seven white men—dressed in fatigues and well-armed—grouped behind four emaciated, dark-skinned boys. Zeb touched the photo, wiping dust from the image of himself at twelve-years-old, kneeling in front of the man who saved him, his friends, and his village from radical Islamic militants: Lieutenant Geoffrey Matheson, of His Majesty’s Special Air Service.

Lieutenant Matheson—sporting a three-day growth on his face and dirty from battle—smiled at the camera, his left hand on young Zebulun Mbutae’s shoulder.

So many years ago, Zeb thought. Look at me now.

After wiping the photo of dust, he replaced the frame in its usual place and returned to his journal entry—his duty as First Mate.

As he wrote, he became aware of the increased motion of the ship. The back side of the storm was upon them.

I hope Phaedra had time to finish. He put the journal away.

Pushing back from his desk, Zeb felt the ship shudder from the impact of a wave. This was followed by the now familiar crack and the jolt of a stabilizer failing. Immediately, the ship moved under his feet, and Zeb had to press a hand to the bulkhead.

“Damn.” He rushed from his cabin.

He had to push hard against the main deck hatch. Wet wind assaulted him as he stepped through and onto the main deck. Amazed at the suddenness of the change, Zeb quickly looked to see how the mast repairs were going. The support rigging was in place, but no time to raise new canvas.

It will do for now.

“Well done, Bo’sun.” Zeb climbed the quarterdeck ladder and retrieved the binoculars from their storage on the binnacle. He looked to the beach in time to see the captain pass what appeared to be an unconscious person—a female person—to one of the seamen before shoving the boat off the sand and jumping in.

Zeb shouted down to a seaman on the main deck. “Standby to receive the small boat. The captain is returning.”

He stood by the helm and assisted the coxswain holding Orion on course, casting the occasional glance back to see the small boat’s progress.

“Hurry.” Zeb could see how close the stern was to the submerged reef, visible in the trough between waves. With each successive impact, the Orion was driven back. The bow was pointed into the waves, but without the stabilizers to hold position, the ship was defenseless.

If they didn’t leave very soon, the stern would impact the reef. Not good at all.

Zeb pressed his earpiece. “Pieter, please tell me you can get stabilizers back online very soon.”

“I patched one up, but I don’t want to engage it before the other one is ready. One alone cannot accept the strain.

“We’re being pushed onto the reef. We need those stabilizers now, man.”

“I’m doing all I can. Give me ten minutes.”

“We don’t have ten minutes.”

“Okay, how about five?”

Zeb had to smile despite the urgency of the moment. “You have five.”

He looked to see the small boat pass over the reef and left the helm to meet the captain.

He took the steps two at a time, holding the rail for support, stumbling as he gained the gangway access as a wave struck. The seaman had removed the panel and deployed the Jacob’s ladder. Zeb stood beside the opening and waited.

The boat drew nearer, and Zeb could make out the strange passenger. A female, in native attire consisting of loose knee-length breeches, and a voluminous long-sleeved blouse. Her black hair was braided, and Zeb could see tribal markings on her neck.

A wave crashed into the hull and pushed the bow to port. The rain and wind returned and resumed its assault on wood and exposed flesh. Curtains of rain cut visibility and made it difficult to see how close the small boat was.

A monkey’s fist tossed up from the boat, sailed over the gunwale. The attendant caught it and secured the attached line to a belaying pin. Zeb looked over the edge and watched as the captain—the girl draped over one shoulder—climbed the rope ladder.

“A little help, if you please,” Matheson said as he reached to top.

Zeb relieved his captain of the burden and stepped back, allowing Matheson to come aboard. “Welcome back, Sir.”

“Yes, quite.”

“Orders, Sir?”

Matheson held up one finger as he spoke. “Pieter, would you be so kind to give me stabilizers now?”

Zeb heard the engineer’s response in his earpiece. “As you wish, Captain.”

The captain turned back to Zeb. “Please have our guest taken to the infirmary. I think Doc should look at her.”

After passing the unconscious girl to a seaman standing close by, Zeb repeated his earlier question. “Orders, Sir?”

The deck steadied beneath his feet, and Zeb relaxed. The stabilizers were back.

“Take us home, Zeb.” Captain Matheson followed the seaman carrying the girl and disappeared inside.

“Aye, aye, Captain.” He climbed back to the quarterdeck and stood before the binnacle. Laying his hand on the right globe, he gave it an anticlockwise twist. The compass tilted up and revealed an illuminated flat panel covered with numbers and icons.

He pressed several of these and felt the ship respond, the familiar deep thrum of the powerplant waking. After a moment Orion settled on its heading, making its way into and beyond the storm, leaving the island behind.

An hour later, having escaped the hurricane’s turbulence and returned to calmer waters, the Orion prepared to enter the Slipstream.

Zeb entered the coordinates on the flat panel, pressed the Enter key, and lifted his eyes. He always found this part of the journey particularly interesting.

The deep blue of the water melded seamlessly with that of the sky, and Zeb held his breath. The air directly in front of the ship seemed to ripple and shimmer. The shimmer grew to a wobble, which became a spinning vortex of light standing directly in the ship’s path. The Orion passed into this vortex and merged with the Slipstream.

Zeb found the captain in the Infirmary. ‘Doc’ Svensson, looking somewhat green, tended to the strange girl as Matheson stood close by, watching.

“Who is she?” Zeb moved to stand beside his friend.

“A miracle, my friend,” said Matheson. “Nothing less.”

“I don’t understand.”

Captain Matheson turned glistening blue eyes on Zeb. “She is my daughter.”

 

 

 

News

Part III of the GREEN Team Trilogy is in the works. Absence of Mercy (working title) should be released sometime next year.

 

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