Arcanum 1780: A New World
Tales - Their Last Mission
Their Last Mission
The icy wind tore at Marcos’s coat as he clung to the slippery railing, fearful that the tiniest motion of the ship would pitch him overboard – a fear not entirely unfounded, for just the other day they had lost their drummer and one of their musketeers to an unexpected gale. He looked up at one of the sailors, climbing the rigging with only his hands, laughing at one of his compatriots. His entire journey seemed so utterly pointless. Twenty dead in the past month, not counting the damned drunk drummer – each one of them a more pointless death than the last. Twenty soldiers dead, all while on military exercises in peacetime. Marcos fought the urge to spit over the edge of the ship, knowing that he might lose his nerve by looking down.
The first two deaths had come as a surprise – killed by their supper. It had been a messy affair, but hardly an unavoidable one. Just a stroke of bad luck. The man in charge of their pot had taken five lashes for each of them when their bodies had cooled. From his tears, Marcos knew his would be the safest meals to eat for the next year.
The next three died across three successive nights. The first, a big strapping lad of barely twenty, passed in his sleep, as silently as the rise of the moon. The next, a snake bite to the flesh between his thumb and fingers after we had made camp in a dense forest – the new surgeon said the man had been in so much pain he couldn’t even scream. How that pompous bastard could tell that by looking the dead man in the eye, Marcos didn’t care to wonder. The last of those three, that was the worst of it – Marcos had been seated next to the man when he started screaming. Thee why of it was obvious enough – any man crying streams of blood had a right to wail and scream to his heart’s content. The poor bastard pointed to the Surgeon-Father, shrieks getting louder and more inhuman the closer the man got. The doctor certainly took his time getting there, limp or no – a man bleeding from the eyes deserves a little haste. Marcos couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to his poor leg to give him such a twisted limp. One good look at the poor boy and the Surgeon-Father grabbed a blanket and stuffed it into the bleeder’s mouth, to muffle the screams, Marcos had originally thought. Shocked the entire troop to the core as he stood there long after, calmly choking the life out of one of Marcos’s own, the same way a farmer strangles a chicken to put on his dinner table.
The wasting sickness, he called it, wiping his hands on the blanket before tossing it into the campfire. Some devilry those pendejo New Englanders cooked up and seeded around our country to destroy us from within. Lucky for us boys, the surgeon said, that he had seen this sickness first-hand, and knew how to treat it. That’s why he had brought so many books and vials along, after all. There were a few different illnesses, and poor Roberto had contracted the swiftest and most fatal. After the full month had run it’s course, Marcos couldn’t help but wonder if Roberto and the others weren’t the lucky ones.
They all started seeing the doctor regularly after that, taking doses of herbs with liquids until they felt less like soldiers and more like visitors to a Beijing teahouse. But even then, the deaths did not stop – during firearms drills, two soldiers found themselves shot by their own muskets. A messy way to go, but quick, unlike the last thirteen.
Those poor bastards had all taken to the wasting sickness, but they caught it slow. First came exhaustion – they would always lag behind the rest, culminating in our commander sending for an airship just to keep us on schedule. After the fatigue came the discoloration – first the skin, becoming a sickly grey, then the eyes. First the eyes lost all color, fading to an almost white, then they gained back a pale yellow, shot through with blood. Their cheeks and eyes would sink until they became gaunt and hollow. Then the coughing would begin. Marcos hated that thick, wet, cough the most, watching his comrades spitting up blood, until the sickness prepared to take them, as their skin grew brittle and begin to slough off. That, Marcos decided, was the worst.
Their luck was running low, as was the morale of those who were left. Things had taken a turn for the worse ever since they picked up their new Surgeon-Father. He was a strange man, mostly keeping to himself, hiding behind the robe and collar of his holy office – even now, with more people falling sick on the airship, he spent most of his time alone, down in the bowels of the ship near the engine. Marcos didn’t quite care for him on the best of days – he spent more time poking at wounds than trying to fix them.
Still, despite their horrible run of bad luck, Marcos had a feeling that they were getting closer to the end of their mission. Sure, they had lost a fourth of the men they had set out with, but his Lieutenant didn’t seem to be very concerned. In fact, these days, he left his daily meeting with the surgeon positively ecstatic. Surely that meant they had outlasted the wasting sickness, and all of the surgeon’s testing had been going well. Inwardly, Marcos was thrilled – he hated standing by while his fellow soldiers wasted away and died, but he knew that wasn’t the full truth of his joy. He was guiltily happy that he had survived, that he was not going to be among the ones buried en masse in the forest.
Each morning, the air grew harshly more crisp and chill as the scenery below drifted from the familiar forests of the south to the harsh hinterlands further north, driving all but the foolhardy crew into the bowels of the ship. It was uncomfortable and cramped, being thrown in together like soldiers in a grave, but it was at least marginally warmer. Despite everything, Marcos felt optimistic – they would complete their mission, then be recognized for their bravery and sacrifice. Their lieutenant told them as much each morning, and it lit a fire in Marcos’s heart as he dreamed of earning a commission, being a leader of men, and making his name known. Maybe then his family would respect him the way his other six brothers were admired.
Marcos’s outlook didn’t hold out for long. After just two days in those close-quarters, the first coughs started, cutting through the barrack-like noise like a knife as it silenced the sixty men stacked in the cargo hold like cordwood. Those first coughs may have only taken two days, but the first death followed an agonizing week later. By that point, their lieutenant had stopped visiting – only the surgeon continued his rounds, passing out the same herbs and drink as before. Under the surgeon’s direction, Marcos and those who could still stand brought the dead topside, dragging them through the snow that collected on the deck, over to the edge of the rail There was always a pause there as the men caught their raspy breaths in the frigid air. Each and every time, the blessing came first, then the honoring of the soldier’s sacrifice. “For Spain.” To die so pointlessly for your country, so far away from her land, this was hardly an honor. Regardless, the words had to be said. The dead grew restless when they were not honored properly. With the honors completed, the bodies were pitched over the railing without ceremony, their ultimate fate left to the branches of the trees, the snow, and the scavengers below.
So it continued, day in and day out, until finally Marcos awoke to silence. The labored breathing of the last soldier left had stilled in the night, leaving Marcos alone with his body in the hold. He struggled to his feet and tried to drag the man to the deck, but his strength gave way before he cleared the first step, forcing him to dump the man in a heap. How long had it been since he had eaten a full meal and kept it down? Too long. He crawled to the top of the stairs, dragging himself to the railing at the edge of the ship before he could haul himself to his feet, barely able to steady himself against the gusts of the silent wind.
His bleary eyes struggled to focus on the lieutenant and the surgeon screaming at each other – that much Marcos could see, but about what he had no idea. He had a niggling feeling that he should be able to hear them at this distance, particularly as angry as the lieutenant looked. Marcos rubbed at his ears, trying to work out what had plugged them while he had been asleep, only to grow more confused and scared when his fingers came away caked in dried blood. He stumbled forward, waving his bloody hand at the surgeon, trying to capture his attention with a low pitched moan. His lieutenant gestured at Marcos, his eyes burning with fury as he looked at his charge, and Marcos felt his focus begin to slip.
His attention jumped back into sharp focus as he saw the surgeon haul back and slap the lieutenant hard enough to cause his head to snap to the side as he spun up against the railing. Marcos pushed himself further, roaring something incoherent as he advanced on the surgeon. This was all his fault, all their bad luck, all those pointless deaths. Why was the bastard smiling? Marcos hollered again as he lurched ahead, right into the space where the surgeon had just been. He fought to keep his footing on the icy snow, but his momentum drove him into the railing, splintering the wood under his weight. He teetered there for an eternity, frantically grasping at the fractured pieces of rail that tumbled away in front of him – he felt his balance just returning as he felt a hand press into the small of his back, a small pressure. He had time to inhale just briefly before the hand shoved, pushing him out into the empty expanse before him, the blue-white sky tumbling until it blurred into the same scene as the ground which rushed to meet him.