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Champions 10 of 28

Outports

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After months in the classroom, the time has come for a final assessment of the female candidates who wish to serve as officers in the Special Service Regiment. Determined to give the four remaining young women a stern test, Lieutenant Stephanie Shylock sets a challenge: they must outwit and outmatch an elite pursuit force across the remote southern coast of Newfoundland. But while Stephanie leads these ambitious hopefuls into the wild, Lady Alex Smith and her new chaperone — the Canadian warship HMCS Sackville — swim in the coastal waters nearby… and are soon reminded that dangers from the sea can overwhelm even the best training. What disaster will befall the best friends, as they visit the outports of Newfoundland?

Available in print as part of the omnibus Harm’s Way.

Series The Champions of 1942 – Part 4

EISBN 978-1-926817-63-7
Published 2014-07-01 (ebook)

According to The National Post:

“Tam’s decade-long pioneering experience in this new, no-rules publishing world shows that small presses can invent themselves as they evolve. Iceberg just launched a new series, The Champions, which will release novella-length installments as ebooks throughout 2013, a latter-day take on the typical Victorian custom of monthly cliffhangers in magazines. Again, a merge of journalistic strengths — rapid writing to deadlines, and creativity.”

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Excerpt

Because she was swimming along, face down in the water, Alex didn’t notice the arrival of the fog bank. The general greyness of the day had limited the amount of light that sliced into the water below her, so when the thick mist came on, it didn’t really change what she saw.

It did, however, make quite a sound –– or, at least, it caused one.

Sackville’s horn was very loud –– as was appropriate, considering it was meant to warn other ships of its presence in fog –– and its sudden blast made her half-jump from the water. Shooting upright, she turned quickly to see what was going on, and discovered she was totally engulfed in dismal whiteness. Thick clouds overhead meant this fog didn’t glow in the sunlight, but that almost made it worse. She was floating in her beloved sea, but only her instinctive sense of direction gave her much hope of knowing which way was which.

And at sea, instincts could get turned around very easily… especially when a person’s subconscious decided to be a complete bitch.

Almost as soon as she realized she was engulfed, she could have sworn she heard the sound from her nightmares:Craawwwwwgggg. Of course there were no Scourge warriors in the sea with her, but her subconscious had decided to remind her of them, just to be mean. Dammit. Ignoring the sense that some of the beads on the back of her neck were sweat instead of seawater, Alex took a deep breath and focused on rational thought.

She had swum into a fog bank, and Sackville had no doubt stopped engines and perhaps even dropped anchor so as not to run over her. The horn was Captain Reddy’s effort to call her back to she ship, and it wouldn’t be fair to him or the corvette to make him wait and wonder. Alex could swim on without worry, but if she drifted into shallow water, and Sackville was forced to search for her, shoals and rocks could do the ship a great deal of harm.

That meant it was time for a swim break –– maybe even the end to her swim. She just had to find her chaperone.

“Ahoy there?” Alex called out, hoping she was near enough to the Canadian vessel for her voice to be picked up on the first try.

For a second, there was no answer; then the horn sounded again, giving her a bearing. Diving forward, the young Lady breaststroked towards the sound, keeping her head out of the water as she crept along slowly enough to change her course if the corvette’s screw was still turning. But the ship was completely stopped when she detected its shape looming ahead in the mist, and she was able to swim safely up to its white-and-blue-painted side without any concerns.

Stopping once again, she looked up to the ship’s rail, then sank down into the water and launched herself upward. ClearingSackville’s side was no problem at all, and as her bare feet touched down on the painted metal deck of the ship, she instantly found herself feeling a little better… but only a little.

The fog was just as intense on deck as it had been at the water’s surface –– properly the stuff of nightmares. Looking left and right, Alex found herself the seemingly sole occupant of a ghost ship. It was as though the old nightmares of Hood and the new ones of the Scourge had decided to make horrible dream-babies; if she detected the clattering of bony spike-legs on the metal deckplates, she was definitely going back into the water.

But instead –– fortunately –– her Champion hearing picked up Canadian voices from above: “Should we give it another blow, sir?”

“Give her a minute,” Reddy’s response was calm and pleasant. In general, that seemed to be the Commander’s demeanor.

Clearly, the crew was waiting for her to get aboard, so she just needed to get up to the bridge and let them know that she’d found her way back to—

“Oh my God!”

“Holy––!”

Alex had been listening to voices on the bridge, and somehow missed the sounds of a hatch opening nearby. When two young members of the corvette’s crew emerged, apparently busy on business of their own, they found a fog-wrapped ghostly sea-woman-creature standing right before them… and being grizzled sailors (of the ripe age of sixteen) they both ended up tripping over their own feet in shock.

The sudden conflagration of innocent surprise from falling teenagers shattered the grip of Alex’s waking nightmare, and silenced voices on the bridge for a moment.

“I’m aboard, Captain Reddy,” the younger Lady Smith decided it was best to call up to the skipper, before anyone panicked and tried to swat her over the side with a boat hook. Then she hurried over to the heap of two sailors, and crouched to offer them a hand.

As the one who’d landed on top rolled partway off his friend, he looked up with wide eyes… and then grew pale, “Oh my. Sorry. Tim, get up. You idiot, get up, it’s Lady Smith.”

“What?” the teen who’d basically face-planted onto the hard deck looked up with a grimace, then came face-to-face with Alex. “Holy Jesus. She’s pretty.”

That was actually a little endearing, and Alex felt her shoulders square a tiny bit as she adopted a slightly-overdramatic heroic idiom, “You alright there, sailor?”

“Y-yes, M’Lady,” the boy then rolled partway and gave his friend a slap on the arm. “Get off me!”

As the pair untangled themselves, Alex stood up again and found herself standing a little taller than she meant to. Of course, a twenty-three year old woman in a swimsuit being called ‘pretty’ by a teenager who was probably on his first trip away from home wasn’t that unexpected… but it was a nice contrast to the nightmare she’d just swum out of. She’d take it.

Though she really needed a new demographic of welcoming committees when she went aboard boats or ships during a swim. At least these two were older than the b’ys she’d rescued in 1940.

Once they got to their feet, they came to attention before her, “Um. Welcome aboard, M’Lady!”

“Yes, welcome!”

They were both still quite young –– just like the rest of Sackville’s company. It seemed to Alex that the entire Canadian squadron in Newfoundland was youthful; where the Royal Navy’s sailors often tended to seem more mature, with grizzled old salts scattered through their ranks, the only man on this corvette with even a sprinkling of grey in his hair was Captain Reddy. Most of the crew had obviously come through mainland recruiting offices where the number eighteen could be reached by adding the number eight to the number eight.

Alex had visions of empty classrooms across Canada, where teachers were wondering why so many boys were off sick.

As they were maintaining good eye contact, it at least appeared these two were well-raised. She didn’t figure herself to be much of a pinup, and her swimming costume did cover her midriff, but as the boys she’d rescued in 1940 had proved, attention could wander to bare legs.

“Thank you both for the welcome,” Alex preempted any possibility of that with a polite smile, and then she glanced left and right. “Were you on your way to do something? Because I’m afraid, in the fog, I can’t tell bow from stern. I should probably go to the bridge.”

Wide-eyed because she’d spoken more than one sentence to them and was asking for their assistance, the two boys looked at each other –– a positive comedy two-act –– and then squared their shoulders bravely.

“This way, please, M’Lady,” the one not named Tim gestured towards a ladder to his left. With a nod, Alex took the lead.

Climbing up through Sackville in the fog wasn’t too complicated; the ship was small enough that the Lady normally in white was pretty certain she could figure out the way –– simply keep going up –– but just to be sure, the two boys were following her up the ladder.

Which, come to think of it…

Alex stopped partway up the ladder and looked back down at the boys who were following. They had, because they were young gentlemen, been looking straight up after her, to make sure she didn’t lose her way. In a trick of physics, or something, that meant they were both staring at her backside.

Raising her eyebrow at their helpfulness, Alex asked, “Is the fog too thick, or can you see everything?”

Tim was in the lead, and his jaw was slightly slack.

Leaning partway around Tim so he could see, the other sailor wasn’t so speechless… or sensible: “We can see fine.”

Immediately, young Tim leaned sideways to eclipse his friend, then made sure to make eye contact with Alex, “Just go on up, then one more ladder and you’ll be at the bridge, M’Lady.”

Just managing to keep herself from grinning at his embarrassment, Alex nodded, “Thanks, Tim. See you boys around.”

Oof. Her tone really was a bit much, and she was having way too much fun. Climbing quickly up the rest of the ladder, she passed another surprised sailor, then made the final ascent to the bridge deck. The fog was even thicker when she arrived, but as she advanced onto the bridge wing, she caught sight of officers at the railing, peering out into the fog for sign of something.

“Gentlemen,” she greeted them, and their surprise at her arrival was evident.

“Oh, Lady Alex,” one of them said, but before he could stammer, Captain Reddy stepped off the bridge –– basically just an elevated platform with speaking tubes and a compass column, enclosed by white wooden walls –– and nodded to her.

“Glad you found us, M’Lady,” he said with a smile. Reddy’s beard gave him a distinguished and paternal air, and his quiet unflappability when confronted with a half-dressed, soggy Champion was somehow reassuring.

“I’m afraid I scared some of your young crew when I came aboard,” she replied with a shrug, then accepted a blanket that was hurriedly draped over her shoulders by a junior officer.

“I’m sure you did,” Reddy replied kindly as she wrapped herself up. “Our crew is young, Lady Smith –– good boys, but I’m guessing many of them haven’t seen a Champion up close… let alone one they’ve watched swimming around the high sea.”

“Or a Lady in a French swimming costume,” Alex added with a wry smile, and Reddy’s expression grew more amused.

“If you have any complaints, I’ll certainly deal with them,” he offered, still sounding warm, and Alex tipped her head a bit jovially.

“Is it bad if I admit they might have been a little flattering? Endearing, at least. They’re so young and harmless.”

Reddy’s eyebrows climbed at her assessment, which probably sounded a bit ambitious coming from someone whose third-line moniker was ‘the younger Lady Smith’. Shaking his head with a grin, he said: “Well, maybe don’t break it to them that way. And thank you for making me feel even older.”

As he began to turn back towards his bridge, Alex blinked, “Oh… no, I didn’t mean…”

But he was already fading into the fog, and as she watched his ghostly silhouette step back up to his voice pipes to call down to the wheelhouse with some course instructions, the younger Lady Smith stuck out her bottom lip and pouted.

This part was only mildly better than a nightmare.