An Inauspicious Start
by Dana DeVries
Cosette leaned back in her chair against the wall of her cabin and rubbed one hand across her eyes. "Are you certain, Brennan?"
The thin quartermaster across from her looked back with an insulted expression on his face. "Captain, I've been collecting maps for close to fifteen years. I know the various cartographer's better than you know your family and I've never heard of any of these." He gestured towards the maps covering Cosette's desk. "I also know that they don't match the maps of the cartographers I have heard of. Gustofson, Smythe, Reginald. None of them match the islands or the details that your maps do. Smythe shows a deserted island with good water right here, where your map shows a reef and a whirlpool!"
"But when I asked the Society for the most up to date maps, these are the ones they gave me!" Cosette shook her auburn hair back from her eyes and stared at the elaborately inked sheet of vellum before her. She pushed back from the desk, stalked across the room and opened one of the cabinets that lined every inch of the wall. Inside was a cluttered assortment of tools, supplies and artifacts. She took out a magnifying glass that spanned almost six inches and returned to the desk. Bending over the desk beside Brennan, she peered at the map closely. Brennan backed up a pace to give her room and found his gaze drawn to where her vest-dress rode above her pantaloon clad legs. He stared for a moment until he noticed her looking over her shoulder at him. Turning beet red, he started to stammer out an apology. "Just look at the map, Brennan. See those broad quill strokes, the salt stains. This doesn't look like a forgery."
"Just means someone took the time to make a good forgery."
"You're right, but why?" The Explorer captain considered for a moment and then pointed at one of the island. "Tell you what, we'll stop here for water. Your maps show there's another island within sight and the Society's doesn't. If the island is there, we'll do without the Society's map. Alright?"
A high pitched scream cut across their discussion. Cosette was out the door while the echoes still hung in the air and Brennan followed a heartbeat later. A wild-eyed sailor stumbled out of the third storage hold and slammed it shut behind him. Cosette was on him instantly. "Riley, what is it? Who's still in there?"
Cosette looked puzzled as Brennan pounded up the stairs and slammed a lever closed on deck. "Me and J-J-John was getting a c-c-cask of b-b-biscuits for Gus. J-J-John d-d-dropped it and as we was p-p-picking 'em up, some sorta b-b-bug b-b-bit him. He screamed and f-f-fell to the d-d-deck in 'vulsions!" Brennan waved several crewmen away, came down the stairs and shut the hatch.
Cosette asked, "Was anyone else in there?"
"N-n-no. J-j-just us."
Cosette helped Riley to his feet and drew him towards her cabin. "What did this bug look like?"
"B-b-big as my fist. G-g-green and b-b-black." Looking over her shoulder at Brennan, Cosette mouthed the words, "Ten second scarab?"
Brennan nodded and grabbed a bundle from one of the cupboards before going back into the hall. Cosette settled the sailor down with a bottle of "medicinal rum" and came back to the hallway where Brennan was putting a pair of thick leather chaps on over his pants. Thick leather boots and gloves followed. In response to her unvoiced question, he replied. "That hold has been tarred so often, it should hold them, especially since I've never heard of them boring through wood. I closed the shutters up top, so they can't get out the windows. But we need those supplies, so someone has to go in there and kill the scarabs. And quietly, or we'll have a panic on our hands."
"Riley'll keep quiet for a while with a few drinks in him. Question is, how many are inside and where did they come from?"
"The Explorer Society provided most of our supplies. Those biscuits must have come from the Thalusian Isles."
"Never heard of a bakery out there." Cosette shook her head. "Bad maps, infested food. Not an auspicious start to our voyage of discovery."
"We'll deal with that later. For now, open the door slowly and I'll go in."
"Just be quick about it. I don't want to leave the door open longer than I have to." A horrible thought crossed her face. "You're certain they can't just crawl under the sill?"
"Positive. I had the door made slightly too large. It will always stick, but it's almost air tight." Nodding, Cosette shouldered the door open and Brennan stepped inside. He quickly scanned the room, the stacks of casks and crates, the shuttered windows, the broken barrel of biscuits, and the man on the ground. No sign of a scarab in the flickering light of the lantern by the body. As the door closed behind him, he turned around and came face to face with the captain.
"Cosette! What are you doing in here? You'll be killed."
"My boots are at least as thick as yours and far more stylish." The quartermaster opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. "It's my ship. No arguments. Let's find the scarabs and deal with them."
With a sigh, he squatted down beside the body and carefully examined it with his leather clad hands. John's muscles had all stiffened in death, his back arched and fists clenched. A red swelling stood out angrily on his right hand while the rest of his skin had gone pale. His face, which so often held an expression of relaxed enjoyment, was a mask of pain and terror. Brennan commented to the room. "It was a scarab all right. I've never seen one, but I've read the accounts of the first expeditions to the Thalusians." He drew a short thick bladed knife and began poking through the cask, looking for any sign of the creatures. "Nothing here."
Cosette's response froze him in his tracks. "Don't move." He heard her footsteps coming closer. Straining all of his senses, he felt the feathery touch of legs slowly climbing across the fabric on the back of his shirt. Sweat beaded upon his brow and every muscle ached as he felt the thing's legs rasping against his wool shirt. He almost shrieked when he felt the flat of a cold metal blade press against his neck. Then the scarab's legs reached the collar of his shirt. Suddenly the blade and the scarab were both gone. He turned to see Cosette twirl the blade in her hand and stab down into the dull black creature, pinning it to the deck. Brennan pulled the leather glove off his hand and drew out a handkerchief. Dabbing it lightly across his face, he whispered, "Thank you."
Cosette shook her head, "You're in here risking your life for my ship. No need for thanks." She pulled her knife free but before she could clean it on her pants, he tossed her his handkerchief. She flashed a quick smile of understanding and cleaned off the blade.
Brennan nodded and spoke in a stronger voice. "Riley said it was green and black. That means there's another one in here. Let's check out the rest of the room. And Cosette..."
"Thank you all the same." The captain smiled. The two Explorers scanned the room again. Boxes and casks filled the entire room except for narrow aisles and an open space near the door where the body lay. The lantern lit up the open space and the aisles, but left deep shadows behind every stack of supplies.
The Explorer quartermaster reached out and grabbed a cask off of the first stack. He jabbed his knife into the barrel top and pried it off with a quick twist of his wrist. The thick smoky aroma of jerky came from the barrel and Brennan stabbed his knife into it. He pushed aside the jerky, looking for anything inside it. After a moment, he put the cask back on the ground and tapped the lid back into place.
After carefully examining it, Cosette reached out and rolled the next barrel into the cleared space. She dropped it next to the cask and levered it open with Brennan's knife. The barrel was filled with water, but she wrinkled up her nose. "Brennan. When we stop for water, make sure we clean out this barrel. Some idiot used a barrel that had held lantern oil for drinking water."
"This is beginning to appear to be a bit more than coincidence. I think we're going to need to go through all of our supplies and see what other surprises we can discover." As he reached out for the next crate, he felt something touch him on the arm. He dropped the crate and whirled around wide-eyed while trying to draw his knife.
Cosette stood before him with her hand out. "Calm down, Brennan. I was just going to suggest that I help with that box." Peering into the shadows, Cosette continued, "Going through all of these supplies is going to take quite a while and with those windows closed, it's going to get stuffy in here pretty quick."
Brennan took a deep breath and then re-sheathed his knife. "You should get a few more crewman down here."
"Agreed. I'll be back in just a moment." She stepped towards the door, grabbed the doorknob and pulled without effect. "I always thought this door was a pain, now I'm glad it's so hard to get through." She pulled again without effect. Grabbing it with both hands, she pulled back strongly and the door popped open. She wasn't quite ready and toppled backwards onto the deck. As she sat up, she saw a black and green scarab scuttle from one of the shadows towards the open doorway. Cosette shouted out. Brennan turned and took two steps towards the insect only to trip over the captain as she lumbered to her feet. The two fell to the deck again and watched in horror as the scarab crawled through the door and into the hallway. Let loose on the boat, it would take days to find it and with a cost measured in human lives.
Before they could move, someone stepped into the doorway and crushed the scarab beneath his bare foot. The warning died on Cosette's lips as she saw Jacob Faust's scarred face turn towards them. "You should be careful. Those bugs can be nasty." All traces of emotion had drained from his voice leaving him sounding hollow.
Brennan snapped back, "Nasty? If that thing had stung you, you'd be dead by now."
Faust raised an eyebrow and replied, "It did sting me." He simply stared at the two of them as the seconds ticked away until Cosette shook her head slightly. "Alright. Hopefully that was the last of them, but let's be sure. Jacob, get in here. The two of you keep sorting through these boxes. I'll get Sanderson and Julietta down here. Between the five of us, this shouldn't take too long."
Faust nodded. His voice sounded distant and unemotional. "Then comes the tricky part. Convincing the men to continue west after we lay our first man to rest."