London is by no means the only thing in the vast cavern of the Neath; there is also the unterzee, or zee for short. On which one zails, to reach the lands beyond — Polythreme, The Iron Republic,
Title: Fair Zailing
Characters/Pairing: Peter, Neal, El; Gen
Word count: 1800
Notes: This is basically floof. I know, I'm surprised too. (I will write another one with All The Peril.)
Summary: It's a long voyage across the broad unterzee.
- - -
“Are you ever going to admit that we’re lost?” Neal asked. He said it in a casual sort of way but he held himself anxiously, leaning out over the rail and staring across the dark waves of the unterzee. The false-stars on the cavern roof reflected their ghostly glow from the water, and the gaslamps attached around the zee-clipper also threw out pools of light, but aside from the waves no features natural or otherwise were illuminated.
Peter had a snappy retort all ready on his tongue, but Neal's clear worry made him reconsider. “We’re not lost,” he said.
Neal turned towards him and frowned petulantly. “Peter, please. I know we are. I’m certain Elizabeth does too.”
Peter made sure the tiller was locked in position and the engine churning merrily before going over to join Neal. “I promise you, we aren’t. Why are you so convinced otherwise?”
Neal flung his arm out in an irritable gesture. “Look!”
“What am I looking at? There’s nothing out there.”
“Exactly! This was supposed to be a short voyage, but there’s been nothing in sight for days.”
Peter raised an eyebrow, while attempting to smother a laugh. “Neal, it’s been one day, and this is how long zee-voyages take.”
“You said it would be short. I distinctly remember that.”
“Yes. Long voyages can take weeks.”
There was a brief silence while Neal processed that, broken only by the squeaking of a zee-bat somewhere above. “But how can you even tell that we’re not lost? There’s nothing to show you!”
It was Peter’s turn to have to pause. “I’m very flattered,” he finally said, extremely dryly, “That you thought so highly of my navigational skills it didn’t occur to you to ask any of these questions before we set sail.”
Neal shrugged, a little sulkily. “I assumed there would be landmarks to steer by. Zeemarks.”
“What, turn left at the giant tentacle monster?”
Peter laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “I can teach you to navigate by the false-stars, if you’d like,” he offered, nonchalantly.
To his disappointment, Neal didn’t look at all excited by the prospect. “There probably won’t be time,” he said. “We’ll reach the Archipelago soon, right?”
“I think we’re about halfway,” Peter told him. "Polythreme is… a bit further."
He laughed out loud this time at the expression of horror on Neal’s face.
- - -
“But I’m bored,” Neal whined.
“You have to learn to make your own entertainment,” Peter said, heartlessly. El, taking her turn at the tiller, giggled. She had been spectating on the by-play for some time.
“It’s a very small ship. There’s nothing to do.”
“Go for a swim,” Peter suggested.
Neal shuddered, and glared at him. “No thank you. Haven’t you heard the stories about what sort of creatures live down there?”
“Yes,” Peter said. Succinctly.
Neal rolled his eyes exaggeratedly, and El put a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing again. “Hon,” she chided, in a voice which entirely failed to be stern.
“He was the one who wanted to come along,” Peter pointed out.
“Yes, that was before I knew you’d revert to a five-year-old after a couple of hours.”
“Ship astern!” El called.
Peter and Neal leaned over the stern rail to peer into the distance. Peter remembered that he’d been using his spyglass earlier to watch a flock of bats in migratory flight, and pulled it out of his pocket.
Seen through the glass, the ship was a tall, broad-sailed steamer, easily recognisable as a vessel in the Royal Navy. Peter relaxed, having been expecting pirates or similar unwelcome company. “It’s the Navy,” he relayed. “We should heave to; they might have information about local glimfalls or coral.”
“I don’t think we need to slow down,” Neal said. “It’ll just add even more time to the trip.”
“Not enough time for even you to notice,” Peter assured him. “Anyway, I’d have thought you’d be jumping at the chance of having other people to talk to.”
“It’s going full steam ahead,” El said. “I’m not sure they’ll want to slow down for a chat, even one using signal flags.”
“There, you see?” Neal agreed. “They don’t want to hang around either. Hey, why don’t we race them?”
“I reckon we could lose them within a couple of hours if we pushed this clipper a bit.”
“Neal,” Peter said, ominously, struck with a sudden and very persistent suspicion, “Are they chasing you?”
“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way,” Neal said, airily, looking determinedly not at Peter. “I definitely think they want to race, though. It would be very poor sportmanship on our part not to oblige them.”
“Neal,” Peter growled. “Did you invite yourself along on what was supposed to be a holiday for just El and me purely to run from the law?”
“You say purely --” Neal began, and was quelled by one of Peter’s particularly pointed looks. “It may have been a factor, yes,” he admitted.
Peter glared at him with as much ferocity as he could muster. “And now you have to get yourself arrested before it’s even properly started. I was hoping for a relaxing time, you know.”
Neal shifted guiltily.
“I’ll take great satisfaction in the thought of you being even more bored locked in New Newgate than you are here --”
“Hon,” El interrupted, putting a hand on his arm. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to have our holiday spoiled by this.”
“I don’t see how,” Peter said, gloomily. “We should probably go back to London with him, make sure he’s going to be okay.”
El stoked up the engine. The zee-clipper leapt forward, knifing through the black waves at a speed the lumbering Navy ship couldn’t hope to match. “Like this,” she called, over the increased roar.
“Hah!” Neal exclaimed. “I knew we could have been going faster this whole time!”
“If I were you I’d stop talking,” Peter said darkly, and took himself off to the bow to watch bats. They were a great deal less trouble.
- - -
The monster rose up out of the zee with no warning, a mass of oily green skin and sucker-coated tentacles erupting through the water, settling to bob on a level with the top of the cabin roof -- on which Neal had been lounging and was now frozen halfway through sitting up.
“Don’t move,” Peter muttered, as loudly as he dared.
Neal didn’t answer, except with a widening of his eyes in his very white face.
El’s voice floated out of the cabin into the silence. “Has something happened?” she called.
“El!” Peter hissed, as an enormous eye swivelled down to stare. “Don’t!”
But she hadn’t heard him, and she emerged onto the deck, freezing instantly as she stepped into the monster’s sight. “Oh,” she whispered.
There weren’t any weapons within reach. One of Peter’s very nice ratwork rifles and several clubs were stored in the cabin in case of pirates, but you could see them coming from miles off and had time to prepare.
If it went for El or Neal, Peter intended to attack it anyway. Using just his bare fists if necessary. It wasn’t even something that needed consideration.
But the monster didn’t attack, and they were locked in that petrified tableau for a suspended moment that went on and on and on, while the monster bobbed up and down in the swell, matching their speed so effortlessly it didn’t appear to be moving at all.
Then El took a couple of cautious steps forward, towards it.
“What are you doing?” Neal hissed. He began to inch across the roof towards the closest edge, where Peter was, moving as slowly as he could.
“El?” Peter whispered.
She raised one hand slightly, it’s all right. “I think it’s curious,” she whispered back.
“Yes, about what we taste like!” Neal hissed, his voice holding an edge of panic.
“No, look, it’s not attacking.”
“It’s trying to lull you into a false sense of security.”
Peter ignored Neal and took another look. El was right -- there was something distinctly unthreatening about the way the enormous zee-monster was floating and staring at them in apparent fascination. “It’s certainly a sight,” he said, allowing himself to relax very slightly.
“It’s incredible,” El breathed. “Just think, all of these creatures below us, and we know almost nothing about them.”
Neal, having just slid successfully to the deck, gave the water an alarmed look. Possibly afraid that even more of the things had just been waiting for the opportunity to show themselves. “Peter, aren’t you going to stoke the boiler?”
“Why?” Peter asked.
“So we can zail away, of course, before it changes its mind about attacking.”
“Calm down,” Peter said. “I don’t think we’re actually in any danger.”
El had pulled her ever-present notebook from a pocket of her dress and was scribbling down notes. “Neal, can you sketch it for me?” she asked, distractedly.
“I want to get away from it, not draw it!”
“Shh,” Peter cautioned, as the huge tentacles twitched. “I think you’re scaring it.”
“What, you care about its feelings more than mine now?”
“It hasn’t been constantly complaining in my ear for the last few days,” Peter said, heartlessly. “It’s much more interesting.”
Neal huffed loudly, clearly not above attempting to compete with a zee-monster for attention.
“Please draw it for me,” El begged. “I don’t have time to set up a photograph, and I want an illustration for the feature article. I might be able to persuade the University to sponsor a proper scientific expedition.”
“This is under duress,” Neal muttered, but he pulled a pad of paper out of his pocket (still moving very slowly and cautiously) and began sketching.
The only one therefore not engaged in recording observations for posterity, Peter was free to simply stare in rapt fascination. He’d never seen a whale but he thought that from descriptions this might be a great deal like one (although significantly more be-tentacled). And they might very well be the first people ever to lay eyes on this species!
He was saddened when it at last stopped matching their speed and began to drift astern, before sinking down into the zee with a splash of foam, quickly swallowed by the black waves.
“That was incredible,” El said fervently, and Peter nodded sincere agreement.
“No, it was terrifying,” Neal said. “You two are both insane.”
“Did you notice?” Peter asked El. “Neal was silent for almost the entire time. Do you think we can arrange to run into more?”
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