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Delicate like the Traces on a Carbon Privateer

M. J. Pettit is an academic historian, a half-hearted wrangler of vegetation, and an avid reader of short fiction. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada, and Manchester, UK. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and other venues. You can find him on twitter @pettitmichael.

The faded blackbird circles the ship, searching for a path to land. Squint and I can discern the sharp-edged folds giving her avian form, but our crude impressions flatter the expectant eye. Raven buckles in the headwind. Another gust will tear her. She looks that pale and thin. But then so does the crew milling below, adrift without a commission. After a fortnight, I alone remain unsunken. My sister never returns without a winning bid. I float down the mast to greet her before Nana can intercept. As Raven glides onto the deck, she refolds herself. The contours of her papery feathers become the sinewy lines of human muscle in her newly adopted form.
I wave, eager to learn if she procured what she promised, but Raven turns and heads towards Nana. I shadow her, crouching behind a rain barrel to overhear them. They confer in whispers, the corsair queen and her envoy. I can't make out their words and Nana still refuses to teach me how to read lips. Nana grins, slaps Raven's shoulder. Good news, then.
The rest of the crew rustles close, keen to hear the report. They push me back through their folds. I stand alone where no one can judge my blank skin. Everyone else's carries the impressions of previous assignments. Overwritten words and faded numerals. Etches of coordinates, combinations to locks, cryptographic codes. Whatever the highest bidder desires in this endless war of information.
We are minnows in a sea of sharks, but our size comes with certain advantages. Knowledge is power in modern warfare and no other purloiner matches us when it comes to agility or discretion. Under cover of night, we slip onto the target, slide under locked doorways, press our flattened bodies against filed secrets. A touch of pressure and the ink in our skin leaches into its counterpart on the page, leaving us permanently marked with information ready for delivery.
We serve as the record-keepers for a forgetful world. Memory is our trade, carrying poetry, history, love letters. Or at least we did until the tides kept rising. Now we sail the mighty Ozymandias, last survivors of the submerged Paper Islands.
Nana barks the order and her loyal crew unfurl their pleated bodies and overlap with one other to form the ship's sail. The patchwork of smoked paper buckles in the southern wind. Overlays of the world's precious secrets broadcast for those knowledgeable enough to understand. We set course for an armored trove of routing numbers and passcodes used by the Knights Hospitaller for their clandestine transactions.
"Raven, take the wheel," Nana shouts. "Smudge, captain's quarters."
Before following, I sidle up to Raven. We watch the cabin door swing closed.
"Are you sure?" she asks. "Maybe we should wait."
"I'm certain," but that's a lie.
"There's no going back. She won't forgive you."
She slips the vial into my hand. It's cold and oddly heavy for such a small bottle.
I enter Nana's cabin and sit at a table cluttered with maps, an astrolabe, the chronometer gifted for a job well done. Before my daily instruction begins, Nana sets down two cups filled with tepid grog. Good for the learning, she says. We clink glasses then turn to my trigonometry.
I struggle to concentrate with the vial tucked in my pleat. Nana paces as she lectures, refills her cup. Calms the nerves, she says.
The chronometer ticks.
The lesson finally complete, Nana readies for some afternoon shuteye. In the dimness of the whale-oil lamp, she unbends herself. Flattening releases flakes of dead ink. Only I see the deep creases she hides from the rest of the crew, lines threatening to fray and tear. She's almost translucent from copying, even in this dull light. One more job and she promises she can afford a rejuvenating wax. Same promise as the last time and the time before. Nana made a fortune trafficking data in the Longitude Wars, but spent it all reinforcing the ship's hull and repairing her crew. Does she know we'd be lost without her?
"Hey, Nan."
She turns. Even her eyes look worn and ready to give.
"Why don't I take the next assignment? I'm ready."
"Won't hear it."
Nana looms over me, tricorne head and saber arms, the fearsome corsair queen again. The one who pulped half the family for their betrayal. The one who teaches the sea affords no regrets.
I soften my approach. "Isn't it time I pulled my own weight?"
"You're not ready yet." She squeezes my hand. "Promise me you'll stay in here when we reach the target."
Always the same answer. But I'm no longer a child. Every other member of the crew carries the mark of overwork. My smooth, inky skin alone remains unblemished. Nana dreams of my entry into the Naval Academy. She fancies me an officer in Her Majesty's service rather than a privateer running from the prizes on her hide. Admirals don't carry smugglers' tattoos.
But on the last job, the numbers came out a blur. Nana's quick talk spared us, but the client refused the promised bounty.
I hug my Nana. She smells of sea-rot and worry and stale grog. "I'll wake you when we arrive."
"Thank you, Smudge," she says.
She picks up her abandoned cup from the table and gives it a knowing sniff. Can she read the secrets tucked into my hidden layers? The chronometer ticks again. Nana takes the final swig.
And crumples onto the bed.
The Ozymandias is a most democratic ship. We could vote to replace her if we choose. By all rights Raven has been captaining for some time. But none of us could move against the woman who saved us all.
I double-check. Not even a flutter when I touch her.
I join Raven at the helm. She refuses to meet my eye. She promises Nana will only sleep for a day or two. The sea affords no regrets. By tomorrow night, I'll be marked. Another member of the crew.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 3rd, 2018

Author Comments

The Weekend Warrior competition on the Codex Writers' Group provided immediate impetus. One of the prompts asked us to write a pirate story, a genre I've never much considered. This story wouldn't exist without the competition or the wonderful forum community.

On another level, this story begins with the simple anchor tattoo which adorned my grandfather's arm. He joined the merchant navy as a teenager, later ran convoys during World War II, and received the obligatory tattoo for sailing across the Atlantic as a young sailor. He muttered something about the stupid things kids do when I asked him about the tattoo decades later. My grandfather did not speak easily of the traumas he endured at sea. Serving in the merchant navy also led to his meeting my nana, a doctor's receptionist in a Canadian port town. The anchor tattoo always reminds me of how our decisions mark us, closing down certain possibilities while opening others.

- M. J. Pettit
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