Dive into Rose’s world with this excerpt from the first chapter of Compass Rose, available July 10, 2018.
I was born facing due north. By the time I was three, I could pick the North Star out of the heavens with the unerring certainty with which other children picked their mothers’ faces out of a crowd, and the constellations burned against my eyelids even in the darkness beneath the waves. My mother used to tell me I could be anything I wanted, except lost.
She was a literal sort of woman. My name was proof of that.
I checked our direction out of habit, tuning out the sounds around me. We were sailing east. The ship was subbed beneath the surface, keeping out of the way of the fractious wind, and down in the training room the crew burned off steam while the whitecaps mounted somewhere far above us and the night shift navigator charted a course over the deeps.
“North, south, east, west.”
I named the cardinal directions softly to myself as I worked the punching bag, a little frustration boiling over into my combination each time I came back to north. I had perilous straits of my own to navigate, and not even a compass for a brain was going to get me out of this one.
Ship life was tight. It made it hard to breathe, sometimes, and even harder to avoid people like Maddox.
I paused mid-punch, wiping the sweat from my brow with an equally sweaty forearm. The ship’s training yard was always packed after the shift change, and it took me a moment to isolate the taunt from amid the sweaty throng of people boxing, grunting, cursing, and lifting in the long, echoing room.
I didn’t have to look far. Maddox’s large bulk towered over me, a bead of sweat dripping from his crooked nose to the floor. His nose had been broken several times, unfortunately not by me, and it ruined his otherwise handsome face. I took an involuntary step back into the punching bag.
“What, Maddox?” I said, trying to make up for my lost ground with a bolder tone.
“We don’t let drifters use the gym, here,” he said with a smirk.
I clenched my jaw and bit back a sharp reply. Maddox’s chiseled chest glistened in the light of the bioluminescence, the genetically modified algae that flowed through the light tubes of the ship casting blue shadows over his brown skin. I entertained myself with a fantasy of plunging several sharp objects into his overdeveloped pectorals, but kept my mouth shut. If I didn’t rise to his bait, he usually left me alone after a few rounds of verbal abuse.
“Your yellow-eyed father must have been a real noodle,” he said, his lip curling in disgust. “Raised the fever flag for your mum all right, though, didn’t he?”
My jaw clenched tighter, threatening to crack a few molars.
Pure-bred Archipelago citizens viewed drifters as little more than vectors for disease, their small, boxy vessels bobbing around the Archipelago ships and stations like toxic flotsam, and little better than parasites. In fairness, disease was an issue on drifter tubs, but I had a suspicion Maddox was not referring to the flag drifters raised to warn each other about contamination.
“At least he had something to raise, you—”
“If anyone deserves yellow fever, it’s you, Maddox,” said Harper Comita, coming to my rescue before I could finish the insult. Her arms were folded menacingly over her generous chest, and I didn’t bother trying to hide my smile as she stepped between me and Maddox. Harper was shorter than me, but nobody on the North Star messed with my best friend. We called her “Right Cross” for her signature knockout punch.
“Careful who you hang with, Harper,” Maddox said, his leer slipping. “Only place she’s going is Davy Jones’s. I’d like to see you navigate your way out of that, Compass fucking Rose.”
His fists flexed impotently as he glared at me.
There were two reasons no one messed with Harper. One was her killer punch, and the other was her mother. Admiral Comita didn’t play favorites, but she also wasn’t about to let her crew members tangle with her only daughter.
“Go screw a barnacle,” I said to his retreating back. He stiffened, but fear of retribution kept his feet moving in the other direction.
“Screw a barnacle? Really, Rose?” Harper shook her head and grinned, showing off her dimples.
“I thought it was pretty clever,” I said.
“You would.” She knocked my shoulder with hers, then wrinkled her nose. “You’re sweaty.”
“You’re about to be,” I pointed out, nodding towards the mats.
Harper was dressed in her Fleet-issued training clothes, her tank top and shorts clinging to her curves in a way that mine decidedly did not. Where I was tall and narrow, Harper was a bundle of muscle and feminine overtones that would have been hard not to drool over if she weren’t my only friend.
“I don’t know what his deal is with you,” she said, narrowing her eyes in the direction Maddox had departed. “It’s not like he was on the navigational track before you got here. The only thing keeping him out of the bilges is his daddy.”
“He’s just jealous that my nose is straighter than his,” I said.
Harper laughed, her dark curls bouncing cheerfully around her head.
“Spar with me?” she asked. “I promise I’ll go easy on you.”
“I don’t know. I had a pretty tough bout with this bag right here.” I made to sidle past her and sprint for the showers, but she grabbed my wrist and hauled me over to an empty mat.
“You owe me. Maddox would totally have kicked your ass.”
“Friends don’t owe friends,” I lectured her as she did a few warm-ups. “But if we’re keeping score, then maybe we should talk about all of the things I haven’t reported you for.”
She threw a few punches at the air. I winced as the blue light from the bioluminescent ceiling tubes blurred under the speed of her practice blows, and reached for my own gloves with exaggerated slowness.
“Like how last week you helped Jonah set up a new still, Miss Chief of Engineering.”
“Whatever. I’m not Chief yet. I can do what I want.”
She assumed a fighting stance, forcing me to follow suit.
“I’ll remind you of that when you are Chief and you can’t figure out why your staff is always drunk. There was a reason they shut Jonah down. His shit is too strong.”
“For you, maybe,” she said with a smirk, then lunged.
It was a short bout. They usually were with Harper. I managed to block her and she refrained from breaking my face, which by my standards was the measure of a strong friendship. Harper liked to hit things.
We sparred until we were both dripping sweat and I refused to continue.
“I need to shower,” I said, wiping down the mat while Harper stretched.
“Noodle,” she said.
I rolled my eyes at her. I hadn’t heard the insult until I joined the Polarian Fleet. I also hadn’t eaten a noodle before leaving my home station, Cassiopeia, either, which might have explained a few things.
The ocean was the soup, a sagely twelve-year-old Harper had explained to me when I first arrived, and if you couldn’t handle the heat, you noodled.
The showers were not as crowded as the gym, which was a relief, and the water was pleasantly warm. It had been a sunny day and the solar heat lingered in the whole three minutes of water I was allotted.
“You’re an engineer,” I grumbled to Harper as I toweled off and reached for my clean uniform. “Why can’t we have longer showers? There is literally water all around us.”
“The rate of passive desalination is fixed, you mollusk. If everyone took the kind of showers you like, we’d die of thirst. And you’d hog all of the hot water. If you want to soak, go to the pools when we get back to Polaris.”
I pictured the soaking pools on Polaris Station, with their trailing willow trees and stands of bamboo, heat from the surface sunlight keeping the water temperature toeing the fine line between refreshing and comfortable.
It was pointless. We didn’t have station leave for another month.
“Does your mom have an override or something for her shower?” I asked.
“That is an obscene abuse of power,” Harper said, pointing a finger at me in mock outrage. “Besides. Does it look like she ever relaxes?”
I had to give her that. Comita was the hardest woman I knew. With her steel gray hair and steelier eyes, she kept Polaris’ fleet in military order. The North Star was the Polarian flagship, and we operated on Comita time.
“Oh. She wants to see you, by the way,” Harper added. “I forgot to tell you.”
I groaned and shoved my legs through my soft hemp trousers. My damp toes caught on the hem and I danced around for a few steps trying to keep my balance.
“Why? My shift is over.” Dreams of my bunk faded into obscurity.
“She didn’t say. She also didn’t say it was urgent. Have you eaten yet?”
Harper winked at me as she shimmied into the close-fitting shirts favored by engineers and mechanics. Getting pulled into the ship’s mechanisms was a risk nobody wanted to take. I pulled on my much looser shirt, enjoying the freedom. Navigators didn’t have to worry about getting sucked into equipment, just the occasional hurricane.
“No,” I said, not bothering to hide the despair in my voice.
“Then come get some food with me and tell the Admiral that I couldn’t find you. Or that I forgot to tell you. Or whatever.” She eyed me warily. “You’re a beast when you’re hungry. If my mother thought about it, she’d thank me for sparing her the effort of dealing with you on an empty stomach.”
“I should have told you to screw a barnacle,” I said. “You just don’t want to sit by yourself. I’ll eat as long as we make it quick. She’s not my mother. I can’t be late.”
“You already are.”
Harper smiled sweetly and led the way to the dining hall. The bio-lights were stronger, here, and the tables were full of North Star’s finest. Laughter and the low rumble of hungry sailors filled the long room.
Dinner was fish and greens. I wolfed mine down while Harper chattered on about the latest gossip from engineering. It slipped in one ear and out of the other.
I had never been called before Comita like this. If it had been an emergency, she wouldn’t have sent someone as unreliable as Harper to find me, and if it had something to do with my mother or Cassiopeia Station, then Harper wouldn’t look so cheerful.
“Get out of here,” Harper said, interrupting my thoughts. “I’ll clear your tray, since you’re not listening to anything I say anyway. My mom is in her quarters.”
“Her quarters?” My voice squeaked a little. The Admiral didn’t summon crew to her quarters.
“Yeah.” Harper seemed unfazed by this breach in protocol, but then again, she had lived in the Admiral’s suite most of her life.
“Is this about the pirates?” I asked in a hushed voice.
“She didn’t say. Why don’t you go find out and tell me all about it later? I have some of Jonah’s brew in my bunk, if you can stomach it.” She made a shooing gesture and I fled the dining hall, my mind whirling.
I dodged Maddox on the way out. I would never live it down if he knew I’d been summoned to the Admiral’s personal quarters. It was bad enough that he had somehow figured out that my father was a drifter. A special summons would confirm his suspicions that I got special treatment, deepening his distrust and his unwavering belief that I didn’t belong, not just on the North Star or Polaris, but in the Archipelago itself.
It wouldn’t have bothered me if it had only been Maddox. He was just the loudest among the Fleet Prep kids I’d grown up with.
Sometimes, I wished my mother had never requested my transfer off of tiny, run-down Cassiopeia Station. Life on the edge of the Archipelago was far less glamorous, and Cassiopeia’s fleet was a joke compared to the Polarian Fleet, but no one blinked twice at my parentage at home.
I ducked my head as I passed a group of sailors around my age. As a navigator, avoiding trouble was my job description.
Things were different on the smaller stations. We didn’t have the resources of Polaris or Orion, two of the most influential stations in the Archipelago. We lacked the bioplastic algae farms that dominated production elsewhere, and our plastic reclamation plant relied on a handful of trawlers instead of a full fleet. As Maddox liked to remind me, we depended on trade with the drifters to keep our plant operational. There were a lot of drifter children on the smaller stations. I hadn’t realized there was a stigma to it until I left.
Being a drifter had seemed exciting to me as a child. They got to go wherever they wanted, floating free of Archipelago rules, trading with the outlying stations and whoever else they pleased, but my mother had pursed her lips in silent disapproval whenever she caught me playing Drifter, Pirate, Fleet with my friends.
In retrospect, losing my father to the ocean’s malice had probably sucked the romance right out of drifter culture for her, if it had ever been there in the first place.
Malnutrition and disease are rarely sexy.
I shook off thoughts of my mother. It had been a long time since I’d been back to Cassiopeia, and I was overdue for a visit. Of course, that would mean sacrificing station leave on Polaris to make the trip to Cassiopeia, a prospect that filled me with guilty reluctance.
Then again, I reminded myself, if I had stayed on Cassiopeia, I would not be a navigator on Polaris’ flagship, serving under the greatest Admiral of our time. I could deal with anything, so long as I had that.
I repeated the cardinal points as I walked, my anxiety temporarily soothed by the repetitive chant. North, northeast, east. Southeast, south, southwest. West, northwest, and north again.
North was my point.
My mother said I scared the midwife, floating like a compass needle in the birthing bath with my infant eyes wide open. She named me Compass Rose, because, as she liked to joke, there was no other possible course. I could find my cardinal points while tied upside down in a spinning sack, which was how I’d gained an early and unprecedented acceptance into Polaris Fleet Preparatory, the most elite military sailing academy in the Archipelago.
Now that I was one of the official quartermasters under the second mate, our chief navigator, I understood why Comita had been so eager to see me enrolled. My uncanny sense of direction was useful. The ocean never stayed the same. Each minute brought new hazards, and the unpredictable winds and shifting currents obeyed mandates that even the best navigators failed to understand. It was different for me. The sea was in my blood.
I took the steep stairs to the upper decks, listening for the sound of approaching sailors. A tiny jellyfish pulsed in the bio-light tube nearest my head. I paused to examine it, wondering how it had escaped the filters. Maybe, I reasoned, Comita had caught wind of a jelly swarm and wanted my advice about the best course to avoid it—except that she had a perfectly qualified night shift navigator on deck who was more than capable of avoiding a swarm.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs.
I’d been to Comita’s quarters a few times, but several years had passed since it was appropriate for Harper to take me to visit her mother. Time hadn’t dimmed my memory of the rooms. Comita’s office commanded a port side view of the bow, and her desk was a sweeping curve that faced the brilliance of the window and the waves beyond. It was an imposing room. Comita didn’t believe in creature comforts.
I knocked twice on the gray door. The smooth plastic rapped hollowly under my knuckles. My mouth was dry as I straightened my uniform, and I regretted stopping for dinner with Harper. The lateness of the hour impressed itself upon me with the silence coming from the corridor.
Comita opened the door, still dressed with the military efficiency expected of a fleet Admiral. I had asked Harper, once, if her mother owned anything other than that uniform. It was impossible to picture her in civilian clothes, no matter how hard I tried. Harper had offered to show me her mother’s wardrobe, but when we got to the door of her bedroom I panicked. All I could think about was Comita’s eyes, boring into the back of my head.
“Compass Rose,” Comita said, greeting me with her firm, measured voice. Her gray eyes took in my clean uniform with approval, and she stepped back to allow me into her quarters. Bio-light revealed the familiar entry room with its hard bench. The door beyond was open, and I could see the starlight pouring in through the window. Comita led the way, passing through her office and into the smaller, more intimate living room.
“Sit,” she said, indicating one of the two low armchairs by the window.
I sat, tucking my hands between my knees.
I heard the tinkle of liquid hitting glass and hid my surprise as Comita poured me a small measure of rum. She set her own glass on the small side table and let out a deep sigh as she joined me. I tried to observe her surreptitiously. Her eyes closed, briefly, and the bio-light cast dark shadows over their hollows. She looked old.
“Forgive the informality,” she said after a moment, straightening her cuffs. “I wanted to speak with you privately.”
I was pretty sure I twitched visibly at her words.
“Of course, Admiral.” I was proud that my voice held steady. I swirled the rum in the glass, wondering if it would be polite to drink before she did.
“How are you liking navigation?” she asked.
I blinked at her words.
“Walker is treating you well?”
“Yes, Admiral. Second Mate Walker is very patient with me,” I said, thinking of Walker’s kind eyes, so different from Comita’s flinty ones.
Comita gave a little snort of un-admiral-like laughter.
“It would be easy to be patient with you, I hear. Walker swears we’ve never had a navigator of your caliber on this fleet, or possibly in the entire Archipelago.”
“Admiral?” I said, my voice cracking at the unexpected praise.
“You are a very valuable commodity, Rose. Walker says you can calculate direction to the nearest degree without consulting any of his instruments. You know when a storm is coming before our barometers, and you can read the currents better than the ship’s instruments. Walker tells me it is thanks to you we haven’t hit a swarm in weeks. Whatever it is you can do, it’s uncanny.”
I stiffened at her last words.
“You have a gift, Rose. Uncanny or not, it is nothing to be ashamed of.” She gave me a small smile. “I am not blind to the difficulties of your position. Harper lets on more than she knows, and I am not surprised. Shipboard life is cruel. Only discipline can overcome it. All that you need to know is that the fleet needs you. The fleet needs twenty of you, seas save us.”
She shook her head and glanced out the window at the constellations. A small cloudbank scudded over Orion’s Belt.
“Do you know why our stations are named after constellations?” she asked, continuing before I could answer. “Ancient navigators had nothing else to go by. The North Star and the sun were the only fixed points, and the constellations marked the seasons. When we learned how to navigate without them, we stopped looking up. A great deal might be different, if we hadn’t. Our names are a reminder. You don’t need a reminder, though. You’re the kind of navigator who remembers to give the stars their due.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Her praise undid all of Maddox’s bullying, washing away the years of uncertainty in an instant. My captain needed me. My fleet needed me. She wished she had more of me, placing value on the instinct that had labeled me a freak. Little bubbles of joy burst in my chest.
“Don’t thank me yet.”
Her voice held a wryness I hadn’t heard before, but then again I had never been summoned to her private quarters for a quiet drink. The bubbles continued their celebration, undeterred.
“Remember this, Rose. Always question whenever someone offers you praise, even when it is deserved.”
She took a sip of her rum. I followed suit, grateful for a chance to hide my joy and confusion behind the glass.
It was far superior to Jonah’s brew. I savored it for a moment before its potency forced me to swallow or spit it out. I held on to the glass tightly as the warmth trickled down my chest.
“I am going to offer you an unusual position for advancement,” she said, meeting my eyes with the full strength of her command. I held on to the warm feeling. I had a sudden premonition it wasn’t going to last much longer.
“Advancement?” I asked.
“Of a sort. There are those who might see it as something else. I won’t lie to you, Rose. I am taking a risk with you. You may refuse the position, but if you refuse, I will require your complete silence and cooperation. Even from Harper.”
“Of course, Admiral Comita.” I took another sip of rum to wet my throat.
“You are aware that pirate raids have been increasing in frequency.”
I nodded. Part of my job was mapping out safe routes for our transport subs to and from the offshore mines. We’d been losing more ships than usual.
“What you are not aware of is that we are at risk of losing the mines entirely.”
I almost dropped my glass. Losing the mines was unthinkable. We depended on them for the raw materials necessary for ship and station repair, and they also provided the minerals that powered food, biofuel, and bioplastic production.
“Why isn’t the Council doing anything?” I asked.
“You’re a navigator, Rose. You see several possible courses and you take the one that makes the most sense. Politics are different. The Council’s choices do not always make sense to people like you and me. Our ships can’t navigate in coastal waters as well as the pirate vessels. Some council members fear we would expose the Archipelago to a direct attack from the pirates if we launched a full-frontal assault. They are willing to try to deal with the ringleader on her terms, something that anyone familiar with her tactics knows is a recipe for disaster. Which brings us to why you are here.
“I have hired a mercenary named Miranda to find out more about the threat we face. She needs a navigator who can travel undetected, and who can guide a ship through the hazards of the coast.”
I choked on my next inhale. The implications of Comita’s words reverberated through my buzzing skull, bouncing off the limited architecture of my rum-soaked mind. Comita had hired a mercenary? And unless I was mistaken, she wanted me to leave the North Star to navigate for a woman who was little more than a pirate herself, through waters infested with pirates and practically designed to swallow unwary sailors. I swallowed harshly, stifling the cough, and stared out the window to avoid meeting Comita’s eyes.
The cloud had moved on from Orion, and I followed the invisible curve of his bow, longing to be topside with the wind stripping the sound of Comita’s voice from my ears.
Comita’s earlier praise felt hollow, now. She had warned me it would, in her brusque way. The bubbles of joy in my chest were gone. Popped, like foam on a whitecap.
The hush grew between me and Comita as I watched the stars blink in and out of the reaching clouds. I wished I had Harper beside me. Instead, I had a small sip of rum remaining and my silent captain.
Navigating along the coasts was the stuff of legend. Boiling storms and toxic seas were the norm, and then there was the occasional methane burst. Near active fault lines, those could catch fire, burning up oxygen topside and detonating with the force of a small meteorite strike. These days, we avoided the coastal surface as best we could by using only subs to access the mines, but the pirates managed to operate both above and below water, giving them the advantage. Navigating along the coast took more than skill. It had to be in your blood.
No one else could do the job Comita was offering as well as I could. A slight thrill raced through me as I realized that there would be no Walker on that ship, no one following behind to check my calculations, nobody hoping for the inevitable slip that would prove that I was just as fallible as they were.
Of course, there would be no Harper, either, and no Comita to protect me. I felt a current catch at the wave turbines, and a minute shifting of the vessel’s bulk. If I accepted, I would be alone, a ship without anchor or port.
“Are you offering me a position on this ship?” I asked, just to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood.
“I am,” Comita said, with a look on her face that might have resembled pity on someone else. “It will be very dangerous, Rose. You’re a navigator, not a fighter. There are worse things than rough seas out there. I can’t guarantee your safety.”
“With all due respect, Admiral,” I said softly, “nobody knows that better than a navigator.”
Comita toasted me with her glass. Her mouth twisted with the bitterness of my words, and I would have bet almost anything that her thoughts were on the vessel we’d lost a few months ago to a raid.
“It won’t just be jelly swarms and algae blooms. You can handle methane burps and storms. It’s people I’m worried about. Harper tells me you’re not much of a boxer.”
I looked down at my hands and shook my head.
“Will there be fighting?” I asked.
“On a Merc ship?” Comita laughed humorlessly. “Miranda has given me her word that you won’t come to harm. It is one of our conditions.” She scowled, as if remembering something unpleasant, and I jumped a little in my seat as she leaned forward. Her gray eyes speared mine.
“You are to do exactly as she says, no matter what happens and no matter what you see. Your safety depends on that. If she reneges on our parley, she reneges. She’s a mercenary. You, though, are a valuable tool. Pirates and mercenaries don’t just throw tools away, not if they think they can use them. Obey Miranda as you would me, and even if the worst comes to pass you’ll have a place on a ship. It’s a bitter bargain. I wouldn’t ask it of any of my crew if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”
“How long would I be gone?” I turned the word “renege” over in my mind. It sent out ripples with each rotation.
“I can’t give you a time frame. I will, however, give you a few days to think it over.” She ran a hand through her cropped hair. It fell back into perfect military precision.
The stars swirled slightly as I tried to clear my head. The rum and the unrealness of the conversation made it hard to think.
I remembered the first time I sensed a jellyfish swarm. I was six or so, swimming in one of the filter pools on Cassiopeia with a few other children. I loved swimming close to the edge, where deep ocean hung beneath the catchment in all its murky glory. I was diving when I felt the shift in the current, as if the ocean were taking a deep breath.
The jellyfish appeared a few moments later. I heard my mother yelling my name from the upper walk, and I swam toward her, hardly able to contain my excitement. I knew with the certainty of a child that I had felt the jellyfish coming.
Later I learned the reason for this queer prescience. The languid motions of the giant swarms pulled cooler water up from the depths, circulating where the weakened winds had failed. That was the thing about the swarms. They always left cooler water behind, even as their presence clogged the filters of our submerged cities and warned of warmer waters and the toxic algae blooms to come.
“You can’t feel jellies coming,” my mother had scolded.
I wondered at the tiny jelly I had seen today, trapped in the bio-light, and tried not to feel like it had been a warning.
“I’ll do it,” I told Comita.
“Think about it,” she cautioned me. “Speak to me before the end of your shift tomorrow. And remember, Rose, not a word of this to the rest of the crew. Or my daughter.”