Captain Vanderdecken leaned against the railing, squinting into the wind. Night was already beginning to shroud the unquiet seas, but his keen eyes searched ahead out of force of habit. Darkness was a minor inconvenience, as was the wind. He had long ago grown used to the numbing cold.
"Something's happening ahead, Cap'n," his second mate said quietly. "Something strange."
Vanderdecken chuckled wryly. "There's nothing strange about war, my friend. It's just as terrible now as it has ever been."
"War!" The mate stared at his captain in surprise. "Thought there was some sort of big storm brewing."
"You are quite correct." He straightened. "And we're heading right into it. Alert the crew. Set the storm sails. Steady as she goes."
"Aye Cap'n." The mate slid down the ladder from the quarterdeck. Soon the ship's wooden decks echoed to the thud of feet and creaking of windlasses as the crew carried out his commands. Canvas flapped overhead. Vanderdecken watched for a moment as the sails were set, but soon his eyes turned again to the grey seas ahead and the distant churn of smoke, fire, and thunder that marked the clash of two mighty fleets.
---- 7:30 p.m., bridge of Derfflinger, course 330, speed 25 knots
Flagcaptain Theodor stood beside Baron Letters as their ship continued to chase down the main body of the grand fleet. Night deepened around them, making visibility chancy except for those distant ships with still-burning fires. The Armored Cruiser Minotaur had sunk with only a few bits of debris to mark its existance, and Derfflinger had steamed past its former position without pausing.
As the Baron scanned the sea ahead with his glasses, Theodor glanced outward to port. The captain blinked, shook his head and narrowed his eyes, blinking again. "Has the smoke of battle altered my vision?" he wondered as he strained to see into the gloom.
Off to port, a ship glimmered, just on the edge of his sight. Was it his imagination, or was the ship a sailing vessel? It paced them, sails stretched smooth and taut in the wind. "What in Heaven's name is a ship like that doing here? Can't they hear or see the battle?"
"I beg your pardon, Flagcaptain?"
Theodor started at the Baron's calm voice. He hadn't realized he'd spoken his questions aloud. He reached for his binoculars, then remembered he'd lent them to a junior officer a minute ago.
"Ah, excuse me, sir. but. might I borrow your glasses for a moment? I thought I saw a ship to port. an old ship." Theodor's voice was low and urgent.
"An old ship? Not one of ours?"
Letters passed his binoculars to Captain Theodor, who clapped them to his eyes with the air of someone who wants to be proven wrong. His mouth twitched and he drew in a sharp breath with a sound like a hiss. "I was right! It is an old sailing ship! What is her captain thinking?!"
The Baron waited politely for the return of his glasses, squinting in the direction his Flagcaptain was so intently scanning. Sure enough, faintly visible as a flitting glimmer in the darkness, was the distant form of some sort of old three-masted schooner or barque. His eyes narrowed. Somehow, the ship was keeping pace with them, moving on a course that steadily brought them closer.
"Signals!" snapped Theodor. "Tell that ship to turn away! This is a war zone!"
---- Unknown ship 7:32 pm.
"Well, Cap'n, we're taking in a fine haul of new crew!" Lieutenant Nikkel looked quite pleased with himself and the world at large. Below them, on the main deck, sat or lay a number of men recently plucked from the sea. His crewmen were moving about among them, offering blankets to fend off the cold and hot tea laced with rum.
Vanderdecken nodded, his weathered face relaxing into a somewhat less severe expression. "Well done, well done indeed. Nationalities?"
"English, mostly, from recent sinkings. A few Germans as well, many of them lost overboard one at a time. Our men have been snatching them out of the drink as quickly as they can."
The captain nodded at that. "Excellent, Mr. Nikkel." He looked away over the dark sea and frowned. "Lieutenant. see if any of our new crew has skill at signals. I do believe yonder German warship is hailing us." He smiled slightly. "Fetch up a bright lantern for a reply - it would be rude to ignore them."
---- 7:33 pm., bridge of Derfflinger, course 330, speed 25 knots
"Captain, reply from the civilian ship coming in!" The signalman nodded as he received the last of the message and repeated it: "Concern unnecessary. All is well."
"All is well?!" Theodor glared out at the ship, which had angled closer in the three minutes since they'd first sighted her. He held the borrowed binoculars neglected in his hands. Baron Letters quietly reclaimed them to take a closer look at their strange companion. Adjusting the lenses, the ship snapped into sudden focus. His heart leaped at the sight. It was a thing of ancient beauty, a ship from a bygone era somehow exquisitely preserved from the ravages of time. Her wooden hull and rigging were as clean and new-looking as if she'd just been commissioned, but no ship of that sort had been built since the 1700's, he was quite sure. A museum-piece of a ship, sailing blithely into the midst of a fleet of steel behemoths. Even a minor collision would turn the old ship into a bundle of matchsticks.
"Signals, say again, 'Turn away now. Strongest warning.'" Theodor scowled at the silent ship, as if he could force it to leave the area by sheer willpower alone. To the Admiral he said, "Is their captain insane? No fishing is worth that sort of risk!"
"That is no fishing-boat, Flagcaptain," the Baron replied, "it is a galleon, or a ship of similar make - a type of merchant ship, perhaps an East Indiaman."
"A galleon?!! But.!"
---- Unknown ship 7:34 pm.
"More signals coming in, sir. That's Derfflinger hailing us, the lead ship of the Hochseeflotte." The young German sailor spoke respectfully to Vanderdecken.
The captain nodded. "Indeed. A most impressive ship, for all that it is made of iron. Still, we are the faster, are we not?" He smiled at the battlecruiser, steaming toward them on a steadily converging course. "Here is my reply."
---- 7:35 p.m., bridge of Derfflinger, course 330, speed 25 knots
"We are in no danger." The signalman read the message slowly as it came in.
"What?!" Theodor was staring in disbelief at the ship sailing its stubborn way to disaster.
".our thanks for new crew."
Baron Letters raised his binoculars once again - the ship was now much closer and he could pick out fine details such as the form of the rigging. He noticed that the storm sails had been set. He frowned. "Something is not right here," he murmured. He continued to observe. The wooden ship's crew moved about the pitching deck with apparent calm, her captain stood at ease upon the high quarterdeck. They were oddly dressed, in breeches and hose. Letters suddenly swept his glasses up once more to look at the sails, which were filled with the wind. A wind that the ship was sailing against!
".a fair wind to you."
"Impossible." He stared a moment longer at the incredible sight, then swept his gaze downward to the prow of the ship, which sported a figurehead of a carved sea-goddess.
". and following seas."
There, just astern of that fine carving was the ship's name, painted in flowing script that seemed to shine with its own internal foxfire-light: Flying Dutchman. Baron Letters felt the fine hairs stir and prickle on his arms and the back of his neck.
".until we meet again. Vanderdecken." The signalman finished the long message with a sigh of relief. As the Captain, the Admiral, and the signalman watched, the Flying Dutchman spurted ahead of Derfflinger, sprang up the crest of a wave, and with a leap like a playful dolphin, vanished into the darkness, leaving only a phosphorescent trail of foam to mark her passage.
"Ach. that's." Theodor's mouth gaped open. The signalman stared in wide-eyed amazement, unable to produce a sound.
"Leave it be for now. Their captain was right, they are perfectly safe. Our work is still ahead of us. and we have the blessing of a good sailor, do we not Flagcaptain?" The Baron turned his face forward again, toward the British fleet. A moment later his captain likewise turned away.
"So we do, sir. 'Fair seas and a following wind.'" Looking somewhat comforted, Captain Theodor moved off to check on the positions of the ships following Derfflinger.
"'Until we meet again.'" Letters softly finished the quote to himself. "Someday."
A story based on the Letterstime universe.
by Colleen - Bluefox@owt.com