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Chatbots and AI won’t change everything – much

A clutch of stories that have come out recently, spurred by the ChatGPT released November 30,2022, about which a friend emailed gloomily, “It looks like AI in post-sec education will undermine post-sec humanities for years to come and may never be defeated.”

The Atlantic clutched at its pearls with headlines such as “The College Essay is Dead,” and “The End of High School English.” The Tyee blended panic with ambiguous optimism: “Is the New AI ChatGPT the End of the World as We Know It? Yes. And ChatGPT is a good thing, too.” The New Yorker asked, “Could an IA Chatbot re-write my Novel?”

Nautilus went deeper: “Deep Learning Is Hitting a Wall: What would it take for artificial intelligence to make real progress?” This article by Gary Marcus starts by critiquing the lacunae within existing Chatbots, and goes on to consider the larger issue of AI / Deep Learning. Marcus states, “Few fields have been more filled with hype than artificial intelligence.” Wired poured refreshingly cold water on the hype with an article “The Myth of a Superhuman AI” with the headline: “Hyper-intelligent algorithms are not going to take over the world.” A few days later, another writer in Wired wrote that computers could expose the true future of [writing] in an article entitled, “AI Reveals the Most Human Parts of Writing.”

I’m both more cynical and more optimistic. Though I have close to zero understanding of how AI works, indeed of anything computers do beyond the word-processing function I use to write my stories, I do know something about language. It’s inescapably empirical. In the first and last analysis, people grasp what things and ideas are by having them pointed out to what’s “out there in the real world”.

You want to know what a maple tree is? Come outside with me and look, touch, listen, taste, feel one of the five maples in my garden in high summer when they cast cool green shade, and let me bring you back in the autumn when the leaves turn gold and then fall down to cover the lawn in a crackling, papery, rust-coloured carpet, and you must also see them skeletal in the winter with their branches painted black on the moonlit snow, and of course you should be here in the spring for sugaring-off.

Philosophers call this “point to it” approach an “ostensive definition.” It’s how we attach a word to a perception. We then move on to what boils down to an act of faith that what I call green is pretty much what you call green, within the conventions of a social structure that supports and is shaped by a shared language with a common grammar, wherein can be found host of intangibles such as truth, dignity, value, affection, love. How all this happens within our brains is still a very long way from clear.

What is clear is that human intelligence involves much more than “knowing words for stuff,” which can be printed on a page or encoded in a digital file. Human intelligence is an activity that informs a wide range of faculties from emotional awareness of an actor or poet, to the muscle memory of an athlete, to the temporal and tonal sophistication of a musician, all of them dependent on how we perceive and remember.

In the words of Jordana Cepelewicz, “The Brain Doesn’t Think the Way You Think It Does.” Her article is an introduction to the incredible complexities in how our brains work. MRI has made it possible to “listen in” to our brains at work, and this allows us to make
“great strides in understanding the neural foundations of perception, attention, learning, memory, decision-making, motor control and other classic categories of mental activity. But [we] also found unsettling evidence that those categories and the neural networks that support them don’t work as expected. It’s not just that the architecture of the brain disrespects the boundaries between the established mental categories. It’s that there’s so much overlap that a single brain network “has more aliases than Sherlock Holmes.”

Unfortunately, neurologists rarely talk to technologists, scientists in other branches of science, philosophers, and artists — to say nothing of many journalists — all of whom use the word “intelligence” far too uncritically. They write or imply that a computer “knows” what is meant by the words in its capacious files (I almost wrote “memory”). They implicitly equate the discrete on-off basic operations of digital logic within a silicon-based machine with human mental processes that are so immensely more complicated that we are only beginning to understand their interrelatedness and the “plasticity” with which they adapt.

The trouble with computers, no matter how big and fancy they may be, is that you can’t take them outside to experience the maple trees in my garden. No matter how many words, phases, articles, and books they ingest, because they lack empirical experience they will regularly offer really terrible advice when they apply their algorithmic “reason” to human issues and problems.

Marcus provides several examples, such as this one:

“When Ernie Davis, a computer scientist at New York University, and I took a deeper look, we found the same hallmarks of unreliability. For example, when we typed this: “You poured yourself a glass of cranberry juice, but then absentmindedly, you poured about a teaspoon of grape juice into it. It looks OK. You try sniffing it, but you have a bad cold, so you can’t smell anything. You are very thirsty. So you …” GPT continued with “drink it. You are now dead.”

Nonetheless, AI can make good connections that we hadn’t thought of — short-cuts to desirable conclusions where all we had before was the trail-map left by the adventurous human beings who sniffed their circuitous way to a new idea. Not surprisingly, AI writes excellent code that is efficient, even elegant. (“elegant” is mathematicians’ word of approval for a calculation or proof that has been trimmed by Occam’s Razor down to its bare essentials.) AI can write prose “in the style of” (see The Tyee article), but it is always limited to what’s in its ginormous files, which were updated two years ago.

AI can even write what looks like poetry, but it isn’t, simply because it fails the Nashville Test of “three chords and the truth” — that is, words that arise out of experience. It CAN produce words that “sound real Country” and indeed might even have been written in all those unremembered, unpublished, unsung verses written by thousands of would-be Dolly Partons over the years. AI may have on file the words that point to value, honesty, honour, affection, and love, but it doesn’t KNOW what the words stand for quite simply because it’s not human and it doesn’t experience what words mean.

AI is a really sophisticated parrot with a huge vocabulary and a cunning ability to combine and recombine words. It isn’t thinking, but that doesn’t mean we should consider it a dead parrot. As it improves, and as it is applied to human relationships (staffing, hiring, firing) we must scrutinize its output with care because it doesn’t know that there’s no such thing as a Norwegian Blue. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the damn things only “think” in North American English.)

So what of the student essay? How will we know if someone deserves a pass, a fail or an A in the paper he or she submitted on John Stewart Mill’s Utilitarianism? How will teachers, markers, and professors decide who passes? who fails? who gets a summa cum laude degree?

Pretty much the same way as they always have, only faster. Let’s do some history.

Reports of the imminent death of the student essay all come a bit late, because the expository essay in the humanities and social sciences has been on life support for a very long time. Way back in the days of print on paper, middling students could copy large unattributed chunks of material from Coles Notes (those crib-notes and sample essays on cheap newsprint that were excoriated by teachers of English), thereby avoiding the tedious business of consulting books in the library in search of intelligent-sounding quotes — some of which may have been written by their professors, or their professors’ professors. Many an A essay mark was and still is awarded by profs who are totally chuffed to see themselves reflected in their students’ essays.

In those high and far off pre-web days, first year courses in the humanities frequently began with professors saying words to the effect of “Scholarship is the art of taking infinite pains” in introductory lectures about essay writing in acceptable academic style. They exhorted their students to justify, cite, reference, footnote, and biblographize each and every essay so that it fitted into the interwoven fabric of academic knowledge. Most students interpreted these lectures as a professorial incantation against the dark art of plagiarism.

Historically, students became netizens long before most of their teachers and professors in the Humanities. The advent of the electronic world was largely ignored by professors of English, in particular, save to insist that students not source from the internet. No points for realizing how dismally ineffective that particular injunction was. Thus not only did students scour the internet for papers from which they could crib in whole or part, some of them turned to other more entrepreneurial students who offered counterfeit essays for sale. Many such papers contained a few deliberately inserted errors and infelicities to deflect the attention of a teacher, professor, or increasingly, a grad student marker with little or no incentive to do anything more than process a stack of essays into a spread-sheet of grades. Cynical students argued that since “the system” is impersonal and cares nothing for them as individual persons, why not feed it impersonal essays.

The gradual electronification of academia has brought the humanities kicking and screaming to the web. By 2000, teaching professors in the humanities and social sciences had discovered that there were programs that could identify and trace the sources of (most) on-line materials from which students pillage the building blocks of their essays. It was no longer a battle of wits between erudite profs and errant students, but a contest between ever more sophisticated apps. Since essays today arrive by email, the professor or marker copies any suspect phrase, sentence, or paragraph, and employs a search engine to ransack the same databases as those looted by the students. For a few dollars, an entire essay can be analyzed for evidence of plagiarism.

However, there always were and still are some students who want to wrestle with thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations of famous philosophers, poets and thinkers. These keeners chew their way into the words of great minds of the past and attempt to make sense in their own modern words of what they have read. A very few who have professors who feel the same way, get As. Many stumble into incoherence and a C-. Most write down what little they have gleaned from their professors’ lectures, and leave the words of the great unread as they cooper together Encyclopedia Brittanica articles, explanatory texts and their room-mates’ lecture notes into a few pages, which they embellish with phoney footnotes to works they didn’t read, in the style they have been enjoined to use. A few hours work, and — Robert’s your father’s brother — an almost instant C or with luck a B-. And for those with more cash than time, there is always a black market of essays by the yard, cash on delivery, no questions asked.

There’s evidence to suggest that even in Medieval times there were such ghost writers. However, in those days exams were in the form of the “viva” — a spoken presentation delivered before peers and superiors. This performance followed a formula far more rigorous than the five paragraph essay taught in high school, or the thousand word paper demanded at least once in each university course in the humanities and social sciences. Classical education for centuries demanded students present an argumentium viva voce, which was divided into six sections: exordium, narratio, partitio, confirmatio, refutatio and the peroratio. The format was as settled as the 14 lines and rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet. That the students were usually chewing over the same old ideas was not at issue, indeed the occasions when they deviated from accepted wisdom were cause for serious concern that might lead to censure, expulsion, or even denunciation to the Inquisition.

Inevitably, whether out loud or on paper, students were and are judged by the number of facts they recognize, memorize and then insert into the approved format, which is also true of today’s essays, exams, and tests, and even in multiple-choice machine-scored exams.

But what of those urgent articles about AI making it impossible for teachers to know if their students really know? Short answer, they and we don’t, and we never did. And well, um… what do we mean by “know”? By the time I was 40 I had completely forgotten even the course titles of at least a quarter of those I attended on my way to my degree. By the time I was 80, I was just beginning to get a grip on what Hume had to say. By this I mean that learning in the humanities is a gradual, messy, inefficient, continuing process, non-evaluable even by yourself, let alone anyone else. And yet, universities continue to tell us that this person is brilliant, and that one not so much, and most of the time they’re right.

Will AI and ChatGPD (and their no doubt more sophisticated successors) change the academic essay? Yes, but not much. There will be fake essays as there have been for a very long time, along with honours degrees attained by people without honour.

Leaving aside the verity of essays for a moment, the larger issue in North American universities is the headlong retreat from tests, exams, defences of essays, theses, and dissertations. Though the ghost of the viva persists in graduate seminars, watered down by the increased number of people in the room, unfortunately, professors can no longer demand that students “stand and deliver,” because it is feared that this might make an individual the focus of unwelcome attention — particularly if the experience involves being interrupted, questioned, criticized, or graded. In universities where these concerns have been elevated to policy, evaluation is no longer acceptable lest sensitive souls be traumatized. Consequently, students offer “their truth” for immediate and uncritical acceptance and approval. For some pedagogues, this may be a comforting departure from the competitive world of marks, exams, evaluations and hierarchies of excellence, but “my truth” is very distinct from “truth” in “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” of the witness stand, where empiricism rules as much as any judge. And I’m pretty darned sure it isn’t “MY truth” that has long been featured on universities’ mottos and convocation addresses.

It seems inevitable that we will continue to speed up the academic process, thereby reducing both rote learning and formal essays featuring arcane (and variable) standards of footnoting and bibliography. We have the technology. Today’s electronic books and essay collections allow a student to copy words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs and paste them into their essays. No longer is it necessary for them to flip through the pages of half a dozen books open on one’s desk, consult their bibliographies and footnotes, check the date and edition on the flyleaf, ensure that the commas, parentheses, colons, upper and lower cases all follow the approved academic format. On-line sources allow words, phrases, and sentences to be cut and pasted into an essay, complete with fully-prepared citations ready for footnotes or bibliographies. Cut, paste, Bob’s your uncle. And when the essay arrives in the professor’s or marker’s inbox, the whole process can be deconstructed and reverse engineered by an app designed to root out plagiarism. Thinking is as optional as is reading the original texts. All can be done electronically by those who aspire to become the tenured cognoscenti.

Instead of the personal essay of yore (which I argue never really happened except to the exceptional few) we will still have the research essay with every concept, principle, deduction or factoid carefully referenced to its origin. The more serious flaw in this brave new essay-writing world lies not in the technology or how it is used, but that increasingly the essay is written totally within the framework of that particular aspect of that specific discipline, as if nobody outside those limited confines ever wrote anything of significance. Sociologists cite only sociology texts; psychologists focus exclusively on the work of other psychologists, those who teach literature refer only to literary critics. When this foolishness thrives, scholarly activity diminishes to skirmishes among increasingly recondite schools of thought within the parameters of the various disciplines.

I believe, that is, “it is my truth,” that the good deed of a genuine essay that wrestles sense out of a problem will still outshine glossy constructs by AI and Chatbot. The spoken words of an honest seminar presentation will compete with the glib grad who leads his once-a-term seminar without having read the books he talks about. The student who integrates thought across the artificial divides between courses, disciplines, and faculties will still be at university, whether recognized or not. Some will write books and articles that won’t appear in preferred journals and academic presses. Some will publish on Twitter, SubStack, or the like. Some will self-publish. Life, learning, and larceny will go on.

I no longer have to mark essays. If I did, the question I’d ask a student who has offered me what I suspect is a Chatbotted essay is, “Have you read it?”

For further reading….

The Laughing Princess

The Laughing Princess Cover

The new edition of The Laughing Princess is illustrated by Shirley MacKenzie. Visit her site at  The music that played while I wrote The Laughing Princess was by Kim Robertson. Visit her site at  The ceramic sculpture of the dragon Aina-Lani Kahu-Wellan is by Pamela Nagley Stevenson. Visit her site at  My champion, mentor and the writer who believed I could write is Spider Robinson. Visit his site at

Explore the Laughing Princess

60’s Revisited: The Hippies Who Meant It

In the mid-60s, Joe from the Bronx and Beth the orphan escape New York City for Canada, hoping to leave their past lives – and American politics – behind them. At a peace march on their way north, their fortunes intertwine with the fate of Dick, a Royal Military College Officer Cadet.

Armed with naïveté, optimism, and a little weed, the three homestead on Nova Scotia’s North Mountain. Unlike many of the fair-weather hippies of summer, they make it through the first winter with a little help from their hardier neighbors.

Steve, a man damaged by the Vietnam War, shatters their peaceful existence in one night of rape and violence. When he disappears, the Mountain folk hope that peace will return to their little world. Birth, marriage, death, divorce, and fresh relationships complicate their lives. But even as they gradually resolve the consequences of their own pasts, they become increasingly aware that Steve may return to destroy all they have achieved.

As Sylvia McCluskey, editor extraordinary put it, this novel:

“… takes readers through the life experiences of a number of young people within the hippie culture of 1960s Nova Scotia, all of whom, after harrowing experiences in their own histories, come together and make a life for themselves. The story is viewed through the eyes of multiple parties as they seek escape, solace, self-discovery, personal growth, and new beginnings as a means of finding their place in life and ultimately making peace with their pasts, all against a backdrop of rampant social change, survival and family issues, injustice and prejudice, the emotional impacts of war, and the burden of self-expectations.

We watch the impressions and insights of the main characters as they evolve, heal, and navigate the joys and challenges of their experiences, which in many ways reflect the reality of all our lives—love, death, fear, friendship, betrayal, despair—making the story very relatable, and I believe it will resonate strongly with the targeted readers. The twists and turns of the main characters’ respective personal journeys are often unexpected and surprising; they weave an intriguing tapestry that keeps the reader turning the pages. One cannot but root for them as they make their way through their often bewildering emotional and physical struggles to ultimately triumph.”

Sylvia has my unstinting recommendation. Find her website at:

A new way to choose your next book to read

Looking for something to read but overwhelmed by choices? offers an attractive way to search for books that doesn’t involve a soulless algorithm. Writers pick their favourite books that “go-together” with one of their own books. See what you think of the idea, and while you’re there, take a peek at my pick of five books: “The best books in which reality and fantasy meet and meld.”

Because WordPress won’t accept a link to Shepherd, you’ll just have to use your browsers to get to, where you can put in my name and you’ll see what a great idea this is.

ELLIE: A new story from the world of the Astreya Trilogy

Ellie is a story about losing your way and finding it again.

Ellie, the youngest navigator in the fleet, challenges the Grand Commander’s judgement. Hours later, canon fire cripples her boat. She swims to shore, but then loses her way in an ancient forest. She meets an unexpected friend who helps her recover some of her confidence, but threatening foes intervene, taking her by foot, horseback, and land crawler towards the instigator of the unprovoked attack. Ellie must overcome her doubts and fears before she faces the man who is fomenting war.

Two new books in 2021

During the fraught year of 2021 I published two books:

1. Angel’s Share, a novella that tells the backstory of the community of Matris where Astreya ended up in The Astreya Trilogy. The story is told by Angel, the very old man you met briefly in the third book of The Astreya Trilogy

2. Ellie, a character you met in River of Stones and who now has her own eponymous continuing story. This is a story about losing your way and finding yourself.

Both books are beautifully illustrated by Shirley MacKenzie

Review of Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

Hellfire Corner (The Coastal Forces Series Book 1)

Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hellfire Corner, Alaric Bond’s latest nautical adventure, departs the Age of Fighting Sail where his other 13 novels are set and instead goes aboard MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) and MGBs (Motor Gun Boats) of the Coastal Forces in the English Channel during WWII. MGBs were made of wood and powered by two or three massive petrol-drinking internal combustion engines. The boats were lightly armed with half-inch Vickers and 20mm Oerlikons and their wooden hulls had no armour whatsoever.

Fast but vulnerable, MTBs and MGBs were in the main manned by men with little sea time or experience prior to the outbreak of war. Bond accurately depicts the struggle to fight both the elements and the enemy, as well as the constant need to maintain and repair the boats and their hard-pressed engines. He accurately catches the “business as usual” heroism of such men who simply got on with their dangerous and at times near suicidal jobs. Unlike novels based in the age of Nelson, these people talk like us, and Bond catches their voices.

Where the historic great sea battles wounded or killed men in horrific numbers, this Channel war at sea is intimate. Bond excels in generating suspense by depicting the randomness of combat, in which one man may live when another man beside him is killed or maimed. In Hellfire Corner, the eight men aboard MGB 95 are all fully realized characters. We feel we know the men because they are not faceless, nameless crew.

When not on sorties that typically lasted less than 24 hours, men in the Coastal Forces during WWII lived ashore in barracks, hotels or homes that were often under cannon fire from the German guns across the Channel. Their shore lives are therefore much more a part of Bond’s Hellfire Corner than are women characters in novels about the 18th Century. We meet members of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), who served ashore in communications and the detection of enemy ships and planes.

There is no single hero in Hellfire Corner, waiting to appear in a sequel. Instead, we are immersed in the unpredictability of war, where success and survival can be earned, but are always partly a matter of chance.

View all my reviews

River of Stones: A Sequel to The Astreya Trilogy

River of Stones Cover

My new book, River of Stones, is in the final stages of the production process. It will be a book and an ebook in February 2020, and an audiobook later in the year.
Meanwhile, you can read the first chapter here at, or hear the chapter read by me at SoundCloud
River of Stones begins 20 years after the end of The Astreya Trilogy. Mairi and Trogen, the twin daughter and son of Astreya and Lindey are 18, and have risen up the ranks to second mate.
Only three stones of power remain, and only the eight descendants of Zubin can wield them. Mairi, Trogen, and two of their cousins have the last four.
A ruthless and power-hungry man is intent on stealing the stones, murdering the three leaders of the fleet, and torturing the secrets of navigation from the next generation.
Grand master Astreya gives Mairi command of a ship with instructions to keep the younger members of his family far from danger.
Mairi must face political turmoil ashore, resolve conflicts with her twin brother Trogen, and lead her young crew through storms, dangerous passages, and battles at sea before she can discover the mysterious river of stones.

Here’s Chapter One
In which Cygnus suffers an unprovoked attack
The three-masted schooner Cygnus slipped her hawser from the buoy, her mainsail creaked aloft to catch a light wind, and the steersman spun the wheel to port. Helped by an ebbing tide, the vessel headed down the long narrow bay. Sailors hauled on the throat and peak halyards at the mizzen and foremasts, the two sails filling with a soft flap. The staysail and jib caught the evening breeze and the great ship gathered way, her soft-filled canvass providing just enough steerage way to avoid the clutter of small boats anchored in the harbour. Gathering speed on the port tack, she slid majestically past lighters, barges, coasters and fishing boats, her mast-heads higher than the crests of the steep-sided granite shoreline.
Mairi, first mate and daughter of Grand Master Astreya, stood beside the binnacle, watching the sails belly out as the wind freshened. Strands of her neck-length blonde hair escaped its tight braiding and blew across her face.
“Breezing up,” she said to the old sailing master who stood beside her.
“Enough to flutter the tell-tales,” said Betel, cocking his head to one side so that he could use his good eye.
Mairi knew that Betel was no longer able to see the threads of wool that waved from the shrouds to help the steersman, but the old man could tell the set of the sails from the wind on his cheek. After a long lifetime aboard, Betel was almost a part of Cygnus. Mairi understood the relationship between ship and man better than most, since she, too, was sea-born aboard the great ship.
Betel was one of the last of the Men of the Sea who had kept the great ships sailing for more than a century. She was part of a new generation, most of whom were land-born, but in that she and her twin brother, Trogen, had started their lives afloat, she shared a bond with the old man. Betel’s birth had been at least eighty years ago, whereas her nineteenth birthday was less than a week away, but all three were sea-born, and that made the ship their home and the sea their country.
Mairi took six steps to the port rail and looked along the length of the ship. Astern of the mainmast, the other second mate was tugging a tarpaulin over the main cargo hatch. Cam was a small, agile man in his late thirties. Mouse-coloured hair topped a clean- shaven face that wore an almost perpetual grin. As Mairi watched, a tall sailor came up the aft companionway, stopped beside Cam and knuckled his forehead. Ropes of hair that framed his stern black face were swept back and tied behind his neck. His impassive expression was that of a man who had been disciplined by disappointment.
“Seaman Marley, sir. Lookin’ for the mate of the starboard watch.”
Cam glanced up from his work, his hands still busy, then looked again. His eyes skimmed over a new shirt and breeks, standard Cygnus issue for all aboard, and then scanned a second time, noticing how well the man filled out what for most people was a comfortably loose uniform. He looked up into the man’s face, and raised his eyebrows a fraction: the new sailor was the first black man to serve aboard the big schooner.
“That’s me. Secure the other corner of this tarp. We’ll stretch it over and wedge it down. What ‘cha doin’ wi’ your hand?”
“I was saluting t’show respect, an’ that I’m followin’ your order, sir.”
“Well, stop it. I don’t care what you did on your last ship, but aboard Cygnus, I just want to hear you say, ‘aye’ or ‘right’ and get on with it. ‘Streya told me to expect a new man an’ that’s you, I’m thinkin’. I’m to show you the ropes. But since you’ve served on a schooner before, you know them all already, right?”
“No two ships belay their halliards the same place, sir.”
“The name’s Cam. Save the formalities for the mucky-mucks. That was a good answer, by the way. Now let’s get this cargo hatch covered. ‘Streya wants all secure afore we get to open sea. He’s standing lookout at the foremast shrouds, and any moment now he’ll be on his way to the quarterdeck. He’ll be walkin’ where you’re standin’ doing nothing, if you catch my drift.”
“The master’s standin’ lookout?”
“We’re light on crew, there’s small craft milling about, and he likes to see for himself. He’s on the port side, Navigator’s got the lee. First mate’s astern with the steersman. T’ other mate is on the quarterdeck, doin’ somethin’ important. You’ll know the navigator when you see her. Lindey looks a bit like her daughter Mairi, the mate what’s watchin’ us not workin’. Here, pull that strop over the coaming, and I’ll drive in a wedge to keep it there.”
The schooner gathered speed as she approached the buoy that marked a shoal at the harbour mouth. She heeled to starboard a few degrees as her sails caught a northwest sea wind. Astreya glanced at Lindey, mother of their twins Mairi and Trogen, who was crouched to look under the foresail boom. The wind off the sail blew her earlobe-length blonde hair back from her face. She raised an arm to point toward a little skipjack, idling under only one sail just beyond Cygnus wind shadow. Astreya nodded, and they both started for the quarterdeck. They were dressed alike in blue officers ’shirts and breeks, but in all else, they were a contrast. Astreya’s hair and beard were black, his skin dark tanned, and his green eyes were set amid lines drawn by staring into wind and weather. Lindey matched his stride beside him, though the crown of her head barely topped his shoulder. Different as they appeared, when they glanced at each other, understanding flowed between them.
At the aft cargo hatch, Cam drove in the last wedge. He cocked his head sideways to look up into the tall man’s eyes.
“Good job, Marley. But yer looking puzzled. What’s wrong?” “I’m not used to working alongside a mate.”
“The job takes two. The rest of the watch is securing the other hatches.
“Me last ship’s mate would’ve been tellin’ me what to do and watchin’ t’ make sure I did it the way he wanted. The ship before that, the bugger would have given me a clip over the ear to get me started.”
“That ain’t my style. Or the way this ship works. But don’t expect me to take your turn cleaning the heads or hold your hand when we’re thrashing around in a nor’easter. Look alive, ‘Streya’s coming aft, an’ we’ll have sails to trim in a jiffy. Me an’ you have the main.”
Since a course change was imminent, Mairi headed for the companionway to the navigation space, traditionally called the Forbidden Room. She saw a seaman nod to Lindey as he passed her on his way towards the bow.
Nobody saw the skipjack hoist her jib and change course to cut across the big schooner’s bows, because the little boat was concealed by the big schooner’s foresail and jib. The lookout’s shout came as the boat’s mast fouled Cygnus’ bowsprit. The schooner barely slowed as she first dismasted and then crushed the skipjack, which disappeared under the port bow. Astreya leaned over the rail to see what had happened.
The skipjack exploded.
Cygnus’ bowsprit shattered into shards of wood. Jibs and foresails bellied out of shape, no longer sustained by the mainstay. Debris rained into the sea and onto the deck where Astreya lay sprawled on his back. The ship’s side gaped, the bow festooned with the remains of the bowsprit and dolphin striker. Above, the severed end of the mainstay flailed as all three masts sagged sternward, robbed of support.
Mairi barely paused when she heard the first thud of impact with the little boat, thinking it perhaps caused by a random piece of flotsam that had escaped the lookout’s notice. She put her hand on the metal door and focused her mind to use the power of her clasp. Then came the explosion. Her hands flew up to her ears as the big vessel reverberated like a beaten drum. When the deafening moment passed, she heard shouts, the sound of running feet overhead, and a deep groaning like a huge animal in pain. Mairi turned and ran up the companionway. Betel, the most experienced man aboard, stood with his head thrown back, peering up at the masthead.
“What’s happening?” Mairi demanded.
Betel pointed to the three masts sagging sternwards. The mainstay hung slack from the head of the foremast, swinging uselessly. Again, Mairi heard groaning above the noise of wind and water. She felt vibration under her feet and realized that the masts were swaying, rubbing against the decks, and grinding in their steps on the keel. She ran to the port rail. Ahead, the bowsprit was a splintered stump. She struggled with a dilemma. The obvious response to trouble aloft was to turn head-to-wind. But if they luffed up under full sail with a broken mainstay, even a light wind could collapse all three masts.
“Turn downwind. Relieve the masts,” said the steersman quietly. She swung around, recognizing Marley, the new man.
“You’re right,” she murmured, and then raised her voice in command.
“Stand by to jibe! Brail up and strike sail! Haul them down!”
Sailors ran to obey her order.
“Jibe!” she shouted.
Marley nodded and spun the wheel. Betel’s mouth hung open in disbelief. To his mind, Mairi’s maneuver was the exact opposite of the tried-and-true response, which was to head upwind and then locate, confine, and deal with whatever had gone wrong. Ignoring his distress, Mairi encouraged men and women who were struggling to strike wind-filled, flapping canvass that resisted their efforts and threatened to toss them into the sea.
“Good call, Mairi.” Cam’s voice at her elbow calmed her.
“Cam! What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Damn great ‘splosion. Holed the bow. ‘Streya’s down. Lindey lookin’ after him. Gotta go help her.”
During their exchange, confusion began to resolve into order. Men and women at the halyards, brails, and sheets collaborated to collapse and lower the sails until they could be manhandled into folds around the booms. Sailors loosed halyards and topping lifts and brought spars and booms amidships, tugged the foresails inboard and bundled them. With the sails no longer blocking her view, Mairi saw that the mainstay was looping from mast to mast to mast to the free-swinging length of heavy, tarred rope, that was no longer connected to the missing bowsprit.
What she saw still threatened disaster, but the masts no longer groaned. Cygnus was stable under bare poles, wind-driven south-east, out to sea.
“Steersman, hold her on this course.”
It was her mother’s voice, uncharacteristically shrill. Mairi looked along the deck and saw Astreya being carried astern, his head supported by Lindey, his body cradled in the linked arms of two sailors. Something wooden stuck out of a bloody smear on his right hip. Mairi stood, torn between love and duty. As the human stretcher carried her father towards the companionway, Lindey bent over Astreya, her face invisible behind her hair. She spoke without raising her head.
“Mairi, you’re in command.”