THE CANNONBALL CRASHED THROUGH the far wall and soared across the center of the hold. When it hit the opposite wall, it burst into shards of wet ceramic and what looked like metal beads. Those
scattered to the floor, mixing with splinters of broken wood. The deck above clamored with the sounds of scrambling feet and screaming men.
“What’s happening?” Tress shouted toward the rat.
He’d pulled back against the far corner of his cage, cringing and shivering. “We’re being attacked!”
“I mean,” Tress said, “what can you see out there? Go look through your hole!”
Though the cannonball had left a rather large second hole, it wasn’t close to Tress and didn’t let her see much of the outside world. Unnervingly, each time the ship crossed a wave, the new hole sank low enough to let spores
spill in. She could see those just fine.
“I spot one other ship,” the rat said. “Can’t see a flag.” “Pirates?” Tress asked.
“Pirates shouldn’t be firing, at least not without demanding surrender first,” the rat said. “What’s the good of sinking all your potential booty under
an ocean of spores? Must be a royal ship who found out this lot were smugglers, and decided to deal with them the civilized way.”
“Civilized?” Tress screamed as another shot sounded outside. This one appeared to miss, fortunately.
“Takes a civilization to build a cannon. What? You think there are forests out there growing them spontaneously?”
Each pop of the cannon made her wince, but the immediate danger was those spores. As the ship rocked, more and more of them flooded the hold, covering the floor, spreading toward her in a green pool. Some of the spores died, turning a dull grey, but the silver in the deck above was far enough
away that many survived. Inching closer to her cage each time the ship climbed a wave and tipped the floor in her direction.
Though sometimes described as dust, aether spores are thicker—more like fine sand. So they don’t float around in the air like dust does, without a
strong breeze. Tress pulled her shirt collar up over her mouth anyway, watching with terror.
For the spores were rolling toward the fragments of the broken cannonball
—and the water it had sprayed all over the wall. In that moment, Tress was given a crash course in naval warfare upon the spore seas. Yes, the enemy could have used uninteresting metal cannonballs. Instead they used ones designed to blast open and dump water—making each shot far more interesting. (Assuming you, like me, find creative deaths interesting.)
Some living spores finally touched the water.
They grew in a flash. Imagine lightning, but made of vines. They burgeoned, sweeping around one another, almost instantly growing into a jagged pattern some ten feet tall. Within moments a snarl of vines—vaguely shaped like a tree—had grown in the hold, with vine “roots” cracking the
wood underneath and vine “branches” pushing up to bow the deck above.
Tress couldn’t help imagining some of those spores growing /her mouth or nose. She got a few things wrong, but she understood the basics.
In case you have a more limited imagination, it begins with a feeling like hands forcing your jaws apart. Then vines fill your throat, growing wherever they can find space, snaking down into your lungs. They knock loose teeth, and drill up through your soft palate and into your sinuses. They don’t usually reach your brain though, so you get the pleasure of suffocating to death as you feel the vines rip your eyes out of their sockets.
Fortunately for Tress, a sailor soon stumbled down the steps with a lantern, wearing a cloth mask and bearing some odd equipment. Among it
was a strange device called a splintbox. (A device which—I happen to know by pure coincidence—is exactly the right size to carry a human head.)
The sailor held the splintbox up beside the hole in the hull, then carefully poured a few drops of water in the top. A sheet of reddish-pink stone grew out the front of the box. Translucent, like cloudy crystal, the stone fused with the wood on the sides, plugging the hole.
The sailor cut the sheet off the front of the box with a silver knife. Every
ship on Tress’s world had at least one sailor trained to handle and use spores, known as a sprouter.
Tress watched in amazement. She’d heard of that substance: roseite. It grew from the pink-red spores of the Rose Sea, which bordered her own Emerald Sea. Unlike the Crimson Sea or the Midnight Sea, the Rose Sea was inhabited—which meant its spores weren’t quite as deadly as others’. Still, it seemed plenty dangerous to her. Growing vines in your mouth was bad
enough. Crystals sounded even worse.
Yet the sailor had casually used them to repair the ship, leaving the roseite on the hole like a bandage.
You could use spores? For practical purposes?
Just like that, Tress’s lesson in naval warfare was shoved aside by a lesson in utilitarian economics.
With the hole patched, the sprouter unslung the device he’d been carrying over his shoulder; it looked like a pole with a plate on the bottom end. When he waved it over the floor, the remaining green spores turned grey. The plate, Tress realized, had to be made of silver.
He gave the vine growth a quick glance, but apparently decided it
wouldn’t do more harm for the moment, and so left it and walked toward the steps to the upper deck.
“Wait!” Tress called to him, grabbing the bars at the front of her cage.
“That has to be a royal ship out there, right? If it’s firing on us, rather than demanding ransom or surrender? They’re here to exterminate some
“Better hope they don’t!” the sailor said to her. “You’ll go down with us, inspector or not.” He made a rude gesture toward her, which on their planet involved flipping his fingers in her direction, as if flinging water.
“That’s my exact point!” Tress said. “If they knew there was a royal inspector on board, do you think they’d be so eager to fire on us?”
The sprouter stared at her a long moment, then scrambled to grab the keys to her cell.