The Explorer's Dilemma
by Dana DeVries

   The salt air swept across the deck of the Redeemer as Captain Cosette spoke in quiet tones with the ship's quartermaster. The shriek of a porte portal ripping open attracted no more attention than the bosun shouting orders to the topmen. But when another portal opened seconds later, Cosette and half of the crew turned towards the bow. The ship's porte mage stood upon the deck while the portal beside him ripped open even larger and two men emerged. Cosette frowned and called down to the new arrivals. "Felix, brought home a few guests?"

   "Aye. Abbotsford wanted to speak to you privately."

   "Well, he can sluice off the portal blood and meet me at my cabin." Turning back to the quartermaster, she smiled. "Can we finish going over the supplies later." She phrased it as a question, but the tone of her voice left no question that this interview was over. Cosette slid down the ladder to the main deck and descended down to her small cabin.

   Cabinets and cupboards took up every inch of wall space and held myriad equipment for almost any situation. Reaching into one, she withdrew a bottle of wine and two glasses. Turning back to the cramped table, she heard the door open without warning. Standing in the doorway was Warren Abbotsford. His hair, clothes, and the beginnings of a beard were all still wet with the otherworldly blood of the portal and his face was in a scowl rather than his typical wicked grin. The large bore pistol in his hands pointed straight at her.

   She nodded pleasantly and motioned with her head towards the other chair as she sat down. "Hello, Warren. What brings the Heaven's Gate's captain to my command?"

   "Why, Cosette, why? With the Barrier dropped there are no limits to what we can find out West now, why sabotage the other Explorer ships?"

   Warren took two steps into the room staring into her face with narrowed eyes.

   "I don't know what you are talking about. Would you like a glass of wine?" Her voice was curious and unconcerned.

   "Twelve ships. The Explorers commissioned twelve ships to sail west beyond the Barrier. Of those twelve, only one has reported back 'No Problems.' Only one. You."

   "Is that so?" Cosette put the two wine glasses down and began wrenching out the cork of the wine bottle. "Why don't we sit down like civilized people and talk about this, rather than pointing guns at each other. I don't think either of us will benefit if Maggie has to blow your brains out."

   Warren turned to point his pistol at the door he'd left open and discovered the passageway empty. He dove forward and whirled around. Before he could bring his gun to bear, Cosette had smashed it aside with the wine bottle in her hand. The pistol shot smashed into one of the cabinets as the bottle shattered. Warren's hand dropped to his sword only to find the smashed wine bottle held at his throat. "Really. I mean it. Let's sit down and talk this over. The fact that I haven't reported trouble doesn't mean I haven't experienced any."

   Keeping his eyes on her, Warren grunted and sat down when she lowered her improvised weapon. Cosette tossed the bottle aside and grabbed another one out of the cabinet. Several crewmen appeared in the doorway, but Cosette just smiled. "It's alright. But Faust, if you could come in here a moment?"

   The tall, scarred man shooed the others away, closed the door and leaned up against it with all of the subtlety of an oak tree. "Now what are you talking about? What happened to the other ships?"

   "Gone. Lost. Destroyed."

   "How? We took separate routes to ensure that nothing could ensnare all of us. What could get all of the ships?"

   Abbotsford sighed. "We don't know. All of the ships were reporting problems. Sabotage, ruined provisions, bad luck, you name it. Remember that black bearded thug of a captain they hired to bring Caranolo and his linguist specialists? Looks like he went out about two days, cut most of their throats, joined up with another ship and they ambushed the Sister Luck within sight of land. Smythe's ship floundered on a reef that wasn't on his maps. Kurtz's men were stranded on a small island when something put a hole in his hull large enough to drop a cannon through. Some sort of explosion in the Phalanx's powder room reduced it to splinters. Only a handful survived. The Wind Dancer had to turn around when they discovered all their drinking water had turned to vinegar. As for me, all of my cordage turned out to be...changed. Don't know what the hell happened to it. It seems fine until it gets really soaked, then the damned stuff shrinks. Ripped my mainsail to pieces in the first big blow."

   For a moment, Cosette just stared at him blankly. "All of them?" Her voice was suddenly very small.

   Warren scowled again. "Damn near. My ship. Yours. Flanagan hasn't reported in, but he must be pretty far off course. He was spotted south of Castille."

   "Where exactly?"

   "No. You said you'd run into problems. Like what? And why should I believe you?"

   Cosette gestured towards Faust. "You tell him."

   "Maps that were completely wrong, showed safe waters at every reef between Avalon and the Midnight Archipelago. Two casks of infested biscuits."

   Warren waved his hand contemptuously. "Bugs? Biscuits always have a few bugs."

   Faust's voice was flat. "Ten second scarabs"

   "Scarabs? Then it's true. No one has access to the Thalusian Isles except Explorers. One of us is doing this!"

   Cosette nodded. "That was my reasoning. And if he knows we suspect that, he's got to stop us from telling anyone. That's why I didn't report our troubles. I didn't want to give him any reason to think I was onto him."

   Warren's eyes went wide at the thought. "But who is it?"

   "I suspected you. But even you aren't wicked enough to do all of this just to be the first Explorer to cross the Barrier." She shrugged.

   "Could be almost anyone. Just about the entire Explorer Society was involved in outfitting these expeditions. But this seems so well planned, that it must be someone fairly high ranking and closely involved with the expedition. Maybe one of the captains. Maybe he didn't want any competition for the fame and glory."

   "But they've all turned back."

   "All of them? What about Flanagan? You said he was off course, but he's far too persistent to be turned aside that easily."

   Abbotsford looked around aimlessly until Cosette opened up another cabinet and pulled out a set of maps. At his suspicious look, she smiled. "Don't worry. These came from my quartermaster Brennan. They seem to be perfectly accurate." The Explorer captain nodded and shuffled through the maps for a moment before pointing to a spot off the southern coast of Castille. "He was seen here. Heading east by south east."

   "That doesn't make any sense. The only reason to go that far south is to try to avoid drawing attention to yourself."

   "Exactly. His porte mage reported in the first day and then couldn't report back. His blooded object had been destroyed."

   "Interesting. But there's nothing much to be learned from that. What's your position?"

   Abbotsford shuffled through the papers again and indicated a small tropical island in the Midnight Archipelago. "Here. We stopped to take on water and I decided to check back with the porte messenger to find the progress of the others."

   Cosette nodded and pointed to another spot on the map. "We're here. I make it about a week's sail south east of you. So should we meet or continue west?"

   "West I think. Nothing personal, but I'm not sure how far to trust you."

   "I can understand that feeling. We've never exactly been friends."

   "No. But at this point, I'm beginning to think 'Any port in a storm looks good.'"

   "So now I'm a whole harbour? Thanks." The two captains exchanged the wild grins of those who dare to go where others do not. "My porte mage brought one of your mage's blooded objects over, right?" He nodded and she continued. "Alright. So we can keep in contact if we discover anything. And keep your eyes open. You're only a few days from the Barrier and that's when we can expect the really exciting part to begin." The two stood. Warren Abbotsford stared in Cosette's eyes for a moment.

   "I have no reason to trust you. But you're the only support I can reasonably expect should something go wrong out here. So like it or not, I guess we're in this together." Cosette nodded and reached out a hand to him. He took it, but rather than a simple handshake, he raised it to his lips and placed a single kiss upon it. Something fierce and dark danced in his eyes for a moment and Cosette sharply inhaled. Then the moment passed. He nodded to her and brushed past Faust on his way out of the cabin.

   Faust stared after him for a moment. Turning back to his captain, he asked, "Do you trust him?"

   "No. That's why we're three days past where I claimed to be." He nodded thoughtfully. "What was that last bit all about?"

   "I'm not sure. But I'm starting to get the feeling that there's more to all of this than just a little sabotage. And what's Flanagan up to? He was one of the most enthusiastic about heading West." For a moment, Cosette stared at the sprawl of maps upon her table and shrugged in frustration. She put the unopened bottle of wine back in the cupboard with the glasses and went back up on deck in time to see Warren and his porte mage enter the bloody portal.