1633 words • 7~12 min read

Shut the Box – a short story from the fleet

Fleet is a dystopian maritime adventure in which sea level rise and disease has driven the last survivors of the human race to sea. I’m releasing the story in serials — 3 chapters on the first Monday of each month — on Amazon. Loyal readers who can’t wait for the next installment can slate their thirst with a series of short stories set in the world of Fleet that will be published on Southern Fried Science every few weeks. Please enjoy the third of these distractions, Shut the Box, where we get to learn a little more about a few of my favorite captains and some of the tangled history of the fleet.


“Who gets the first roll?” Captain Binnacle asked as she carried four very full glasses of Gill’s special reserve into the lounge.

“Captain’s prerogative, dear.” Captain Grease-pen was sprawled across the long couch that ran the length of Shellfish Lover’s main room.

“Very well, Windlass, you’re up!” She passed the glasses to her three guests. It was a quiet mid-week night in the fleet, and the four women were gathered for their regular game of shut-the-box. With fuel rations in full effect, it seemed like they were gathering for drinks every night.

“What’s the wager, tonight?” Captain Grunt was eager for spoils. Commanding one of the few diesel ships had left her hurting for fuel more than most. All eyes were on Binnacle. The host sets the rules.

“Let’s see,” she thought carefully. Striking a delicate balance between an enjoyable incentive to win and an unbearable penalty for losing would be the most challenging part of the evening. “Winner gets their choice of impellers from the bilge supplies. And the loser… the loser hosts the next game.” The others nodded in agreement. That wager was eminently fair. “Windlass?”

The bosun was the only non-captain aboard tonight. She picked up the two carved wooden dice, gifted by The Collector if she remembered correctly, and rolled them into the felt lined box.

“Four!” She knocked down the number four and rolled again. “Seven… Seven… Eight… Six… Damn!” She managed to knock down every number but nine. Grease-pen added it to the chalkboard under Windlass’s name.

“Not bad, love.” Binnacle was the first to introduce this game to the group, and was considered the best, or at least the luckiest. “Grunt?”

Grunt took the dice and started her round. “Seven… Eight… Nine… Three!” She left the one, four, and seven standing.

“Twelve points for you!” Grease-pen took a satisfied sip from her glass before starting her turn. She rolled well and only the five stood.

“You’re off to a nice start.” Binnacle took her seat for the final turn of the first round. She rolled well and left the seven standing.

“Tough luck, Captain.” Binnacle smiled. Ending on a seven was the best strategy, even if it didn’t always shut-the-box.

Shut-the-box is an old game. It traces its roots back to a time long before the Burning or the Hurricane, before the plagues and the floods, back when people lived on land and the sea was an eternal source of danger. This simple game was used to wile away the long hours as sailors traversed the vast expanse with nothing more than sail and strength of arm. Voyages that would take their fastest ship days would take these ancient mariners months.

The game was simple. Nine dominoes were arrayed along a rod. Each one with a number from one to nine etched on it. Players roll two dice. Whatever number the dice roll, an equal summed must be knocked from the stack of dominoes in any combinations. Should no domino combination add up to the dice roll, the turn ends and the remaining dominoes are the score for that round. Should all dominoes be removed, the player shuts the box and their turn ends. Whatever they scored in the preceding rounds is their final score. The game ends when all players have shut the box. The winner is the one with the lowest score.

Four rounds later and no one had shut the box yet. Binnacle was, naturally, in the lead, and she called a break so that glasses could be refilled. It was going to be a long night of dice and moonshine.

With glasses once again full, Binnacle directed a pointed question to Windlass.

“What in the holy hell is going on with your captain?”

“I don’t know. He’s just angry these days.”

“Angry is one thing, but he sounded stinking drunk during the morning roll call today.” Grease-pen cut in.

“He was. I found him this morning passed out on the deck. Had to dump him overboard to shake him out of it.”

Grunt laughed. “I would have liked to see that. He never could handle his booze.”

“That’s for sure, remember the recommissioning party?”

“Recommissioning party?”

“Before your time, love.” Binnacle was back in charge of the conversation. “The day we welcomed Shellfish Lover into the fleet. You were still a child.”

“Oh, now that was a night to forget,” Grunt, reminiscing fondly. “That was the night the Gale dumped his anchors?”

“I almost forgot! How did it go again?”

“He got blind drunk on Gill’s best moonshine and passed out in Rosscarrie’s wheelhouse. When he woke up a few hours later he had the spins so bad he thought his ship was loose so he released both anchors and just sat there while they unspooled all the way off the windlass. Cod, what an idiot.”

“I seem to remember you had a thing for him.” Binnacle again, making a jab at Grease-pen.

“His was the ship that found Seahorse. I’m rather found of her crew.” Grease-pen nodded toward Grunt, “But he seemed so competent back then.”

“And then you got to know him.”

“And then I got to know him.”

“You know what I don’t see happening here?” Windlass butted in to their reminiscence. “Hain’t nobody shutting the box.”

They played another four rounds. Their scores crept up but no one was able to slam the lid.

“We aren’t rolling lucky tonight.”

“How’s Shellfish Lover holding up with the rations?” Grunt asked her compatriot.

“Well enough. Most of the crew is serving shifts on Gallant, no point keeping them here. I haven’t even seen my bosun in three days.”

“But she’s still sea-fit. You’re doing ok for maintenance?”

“You know how these Veazel’s go. As long as you keep them fed, they’ll keep turning. Bilges to, though Shelly never lets much water in. She doesn’t leak like Satyr.”

“I’d like to see you keep a 300-year-old sail boat floating. Satyr’s a hell of a lot tougher than your softy.” Softy, a term the captains of the older ships used to describe the Veazel-powered vessel that required so much less maintenance.

“Oh, sure. You’ve got a cranky old boat, so you must be the better captain.” There wasn’t any malice in Binnacle’s voice. A few friends were just enjoying a gentle ribbing.

“At least I can hoist the sails if it comes to it.”

“You have sails?” Grunt jumped in. Seahorse lost its last sail years ago. There had been no replacement.

“Just a storm jib. The Collector patched it together for me a while back. Haven’t needed to use it yet.”

“Remember sailing? No engine noise, no fuel rations. Just us and the wind, gliding across the water.”

“Those were the days. With all the crap on my hull, I doubt I’ll be gliding anywhere.”

“More drinks!” Binnacle had taken her cue to refill everyone’s glasses for a third time.

“You know, Seahorse needs a whole lot less sheet than Satyr to fly. I bet we could turn that jib into a mainsail.” Grunt had put the thought of sailing in Grease-pen’s head and she couldn’t let it go. “I’d love to run with the wind again.”

“I’ll need to give her a hull scraping, but she should still be fit to sail. Let’s give it a try!”

“It shouldn’t take but a week to get the sail retooled. I’ll come by for measurements tomorrow.”

While the two women were talking, Binnacle and Windlass continued to roll. Grunt, now excited at the prospect of sailing, took her turn. “Ten, twelve, five, eleven, seven!” Grunt slammed the lid down so hard that it bounced of the table and clattered to the floor. “Shut the box!” She hollered.

“Well done!” With a lower score, Binnacle still had a chance to win, provided she could shut the box in the next turn or two.

More drinks and the math was getting hazy. Binnacle managed to shut the box three turns later, not soon enough to win, but at least she wasn’t losing. A few more rounds and the game was done. Windlass would host the next game.

“Better pack your foulies! Grunt was gloating just a little. “There hain’t much room in NC-3502-WM’s wheelhouse.”

“Well then,” Windlass put a hand on Grunt’s knee. “I guess we’ll just have to get cozy.”

Binnacle cleaned up while the others sorted out Grunt’s winnings and made arrangements to transfer the sails. Windlass joined Binnacle in the galley, a pile of empty glasses in her arms.

“You heading back to NC-3502-WM tonight?” Windlass was drunker than she liked to be and shook her head ‘no’,

“I hain’t in any condition to pilot a tender.”

“Well then, as always, my berths are your berths. See you in the morning.”

 

 


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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