The Witch of November
by John R. Plunkett

Apple Blossom strolled along the quay. Creatures that skreeled like gulls but looked more like lizards looped and wheeled in the stiff onshore breeze, occasionally clustering into mobs fighting over the scraps thrown by wharfies on lunch break. Apple Blossom inhaled deeply and sighed. Shi loved the sea and today it was everything a person could wish for. The sun shone brightly in clear sky, the ocean itself sparkling and bright.

At the foot of a steeply slanting gangway Apple Blossom paused and looked up. A formidable looking black metal wall towered above her and stretched along the quay more than a hundred meters in either direction. It was the side of a ship; thick hawsers secured it against fenders hanging from the pilings. Apple Blossom nodded in satisfaction and walked up the gangway. Racks for holding intermodal containers covered the deck, from the blunt, upthrust bow to the blocky, white painted superstructure, mounted about a third of the ship's length forward of the stern. The racks lay across enormous hatches covering the ship's holds, in which loose bulk cargo like ore or grain could be stowed or more containers. Apple Blossom inspected the deck gear as shi walked aft; everything looked neat and fresh, as well it should. The Ivar S. Janson had come out the shipyards only a few months earlier. In a few days she would make her first run, from Curtisport to Berdoovia, under the command of Captain Apple Blossom, with a mixed cargo of manufactured goods and raw materials. Apple Blossom smiled; some might think hir much too old to be a romantic but they'd be wrong. Shi loved the sea and shi loved ships.

As Apple Blossom approached the superstructure a hatch opened and a young Terran man stepped out. He grinned and waved, hurrying up. "Good to meet you, Captain," he exclaimed, taking Apple Blossom's hand and shaking it vigorously. "I'm Greg Hanson."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hanson," Apple Blossom replied, giving the fellow a quick looking over. Since shi'd spent some years on Terra shi determined that his ancestors had been Maori or Polynesian, with just a touch of European blood creeping in somewhere along the line. In keeping with current fashion he wore a smartly tailored gray suit with padded shoulders, his jet black hair slicked back and braided into a modest pony tail. Apple Blossom guessed his age as somewhere around twenty-five.

Apple Blossom, on the other hand, was a Chakat, meaning that hir ancestors had come from a laboratory at the Institute of New Generation Genetics in Melbourne, Australia. Shi looked as if someone had cut the head off a large cat- about the size of a full grown lion- and spliced in the torso of a humanoid female. (Which was not so far from the truth; hir species had been created by blending Terran and feline genetic material.) Physiologically shi most resembled a leopard; the base color of hir pelt- which covered hir torso as well as the rest of hir body- was a light tan, decorated with large, closely spaced spots with black borders of uneven thickness that faded out toward the center. Some had described them as resembling coffee stains. On hir arms and legs the spots became smaller, solid, and less densely packed. The base coat changed to something more whitish. Many Chakats had manes but Apple Blossom did not. To those who knew how to judge Chakat ages shi looked middle aged- that is, around fifty or sixty. Shi seemed reasonably fit even though a generous amount of flesh softened and rounded hir form. Despite appearing entirely female, including generously sized though slightly sagging breasts, shi also had a penis, located in the usual place between hir hind legs. In an effort to avoid the sexual tensions other species endured the ancient geneticists had chosen to make Chakats hermaphrodites. (In Apple Blossom's opinion they had merely replaced one set of sexual tensions with another.) Shi wore a white, short sleeved, button-up tunic whose black shoulder boards bore four gold stripes. A silver pin in the form of a fouled anchor decorated hir right breast pocket. Across hir lower back shi carried two bulky cloth saddle bags. Not having to carry pants, shoes, or underwear greatly reduced the amount of luggage shi needed. Conversely one bag contained nothing but hir slicker, a garment made quite voluminous by the need to cover not merely hir torso but hir entire body.

"We're glad to have you aboard, Captain," Mr. Hanson continued, leading Apple Blossom down a companionway to an elevator. "What do you think of our little darling so far?" He gestured expansively to take in the corridor and the ship as a whole.

"She looks nice," Apple Blossom allowed, stepping into the elevator and turning around. Mr. Hanson had to step aside; the elevator wasn't very large. "I can't wait to try her out at sea."

Mr. Hanson chuckled. "You'll love her, I promise. She handles like a dream."

The elevator brought them to the bridge, a narrow room running the width of the superstructure. Doors at either end opened onto wings that hung out over the sides of the hull, where officers could stand watch during maneuvers. A row of consoles ran down the center of the bridge, with wide aisles before and behind them. The chairs, Apple Blossom noted, were anchored the deck and equipped with seatbelts. Shi nodded in approval; a tropical cyclone could make even a vessel as large and massive as the Ivar S. Janson dance like a bottle in a millrace. Though presumably it wouldn't come to that; fully half the bridge instrumentation existed for the sole purpose of receiving and analyzing weather data. Most of what remained, about a third of the total, served to fix the ship's position and identify what was going on in the nearby world. That last bit- at the very center of the bank- provided controls for actually maneuvering the ship and monitoring the status of its various systems. In looking them over Apple Blossom laughed.

"Something amuses you, Captain?" Mr. Hanson inquired.

"A few years ago I was leading a tour of schoolchildren through a ship I was serving on at the time," Apple blossom replied. "One of the kids asked me where ship's wheel was. It broke my heart to have to tell hir we didn't use them anymore." The Ivar S. Janson's helm station, as on that other ship, was entirely electronic. Buttons and display screens made it look more like a fancy computer game than the place where one would drive a thirty-six thousand ton vessel.

"I know the feeling," Another voice put in. "I was terribly let down when I found out that ships didn't have big spoked wheels like in all the storybooks."

Apple Blossom turned hir head and beheld a bipedal humanoid creature resembling an enormous, shaggy black dog. He wore a tunic like Apple Blossom's but his shoulder boards carried only three stripes. He also wore gray slacks secured by a black belt but no shoes. "I'm guessing you'd be First Officer James Crowley," shi observed.

"I would," the dog replied, saluting smartly. "Welcome aboard, Captain."

"Thank you, Mr. Crowley." Apple Blossom returned the salute, then shook hands. "Is the rest of the crew on board yet?"

"Not yet," James replied. "Only myself and Second Officer Macchiaboscosa. Shi's downstairs taking a shower." He grimaced. "One of the workmen left a can of paint standing open in the galley and shi, well..." he shrugged helplessly.

Apple Blossom sighed. When a vessel came out of the yards there were bound to be teething pains.

"All the officers should be on board by tonight," Mr. Hanson put in. "The rest of the crew will be arriving tomorrow. If you'll sign the Ship's Articles we'll get you officially set in." He walked up to one of the consoles and called up a particular screen.

Apple Blossom signed hir name with the stylus then applied hir thumbprint. The console beeped and flashed the message "Welcome aboard, Captain Apple Blossom."

"I'll leave you in Mr. Crowley's capable hands," Mr. Hanson declared, flashing a dazzling smile. "I have to be back to the office. Business never sleeps, you know." He retreated to the elevator.

"What a wowser," Apple blossom commented once the doors closed.

"Amen." James nodded in agreement. "He met me when I came on board and gave me a long walk-through tour. As we went through the portside accommodation companionway I noticed a bunch of people heading for the gangway along the starboard rail. I rushed off and just managed to intercept them. They were technicians who'd been at work in the engine room. They'd been down there all along while Mr. Hanson gave me the big tour."

"Doing what?" Apple Blossom wanted to know.

"Working on the drive system," James replied. "Apparently the portside shaft keeps shutting down with a bearing overheat warning even though the bearings aren't really overheated. Factory technicians have been at it for weeks now."

"Did they fix it?" Apple Blossom wanted to know.

James shrugged fatalistically. "Who knows? The diagnostics all look fine but apparently they did before, too."

"Take me down there," Apple Blossom commanded.

Ivar S. Janson's engine room looked more like a laboratory or a computer center than an industrial area. Power came from a sealed core fission reactor and drove two enormous electric motors attached to shafts that turned the ship's propellers. Aside from the motors themselves the only moving parts in the entire system were cooling fans for the electronics. In point of fact the controls for managing hotel services- power, climate control, light, water, and waste disposal for the crew accommodations- were far more complex than those for main propulsion. A crew of only five, including a chief engineer, could oversee the entire system. Apple Blossom called up diagnostic displays and looked them over; shi didn't claim to be an engineer but shi'd picked things up over the years. Everything looked fine. Shi backed down a ladder to the engine room floor and inspected the drive motors. Each one loomed about half again hir height and more than double the length of hir entire body and attached directly to the propeller shafts without reduction gears. A pair of inverted U-shaped tunnels pierced the engine room's aft bulkhead; the shafts ran through them to the stern. Apple Blossom headed down the portside one; after a ways shi encountered a vertical passage fixed with a ladder leading upwards. The shaft tunnels were water tight in case one or more of the aft holds happened to flood; if the engine room itself or the shaft tunnels flooded crew members there could escape to the deck through the chimneys. Three bearings supported the shaft between the motor and the thrust bearing set in the outer hull; upon each one Apple Blossom noted a sign that warned crew members not to touch the moving shaft and that it might start or stop unexpectedly. At the #3 bearing a smell caught Apple Blossom's attention. Ignoring the warning shi peeked under the shaft and spotted a trickle of lubricating fluid oozing from the seal. Shi wiped up a dab with hir finger and inspected it in the light; it looked clean and showed no sign of thermal breakdown.

"This is our hoodoo, by the way," James said. "Old Number Three is the one that trips the most shutdowns, with Number Two a distant second."

Apple Blossom nodded. It seemed somehow appropriate that the problem bearing should be the one farthest from the engine room, therefore the most inconvenient to check directly. Hir quick visual inspection revealed no problems; the bearings were lubricated by positive pressure and a certain amount of seepage was normal and expected. Shi completed hir tour by taking a look at the thrust bearing itself. It too looked pristine and factory fresh.

"Shall we take a look at the rudder engine while we're here?" James suggested.

"Why not," Apple Blossom replied. Shi followed James up a ladder, through a horizontal passage, and into a large, low ceilinged room whose prime feature was an enormous gear mounted horizontally on the floor. Two gigantic motor driven gear boxes, one on the right and one on the left, would cause the gear to turn. Apple Blossom noticed a console upon which was mounted a large lever secured by a cage; shi lifted the cage and moved the lever to the right. The motors roared to life and the gear began to turn, as indicated by a rod stuck through a shaft protruding from the top of the gear casing. When Apple Blossom centered the lever the motors shut down quickly and smoothly without any questionable noises except for an odd warble.

James pulled a communicator from his pocket and switched it on. "Crowley speaking," he answered. "Yes," he added after a brief pause. "I'm the rudder engine room with the captain. We're testing the manual control. Right." He put the communicator away. "That was Second Officer Macchiaboscosa. Shi was on the bridge and noticed the activity."

Apple Blossom nodded in approval. "Good to know my officers are on top of things. Since I've already seen the engine room and one shaft let's go back along the deck."

A chimney brought them from the rudder engine room to the deck. James held the cover while Apple Blossom climbed out then secured it behind hir. Together they walked past the container racks on the after deck to the rear of the superstructure and took the elevator to the bridge.

Macchiaboscosa was also a Chakat, around thirty or so. Shi resembled a lynx except that the base color of hir coat looked more reddish than gray. Shi did have a mane, bright burnished red in color, which shi wore shoulder length and gathered back into a pony tail. Hir shoulder boards had only two stripes on them. "Welcome aboard, sir," shi said to Apple Blossom. "Sorry I wasn't here to greet you."

Apple Blossom detected the odor of strong solvents emanating from Macchiaboscosa and the fur on hir right foreleg, belly, and right flank looked somewhat frizzy. "No need to apologize," shi said. "I've had paint in my fur too, and I know what a devil it is to get it out without just shaving it off.

Macchiaboscosa grimaced. "If I ever find out who left that can sitting there..." shi let the statement trail off.

"What do you think of our fine vessel?" Apple Blossom wanted to know.

"She's a beaut," Macchiaboscosa replied without hesitation. "Good clean lines, intelligently arranged deck gear, open and well lit engineering spaces, all the latest instrumentation..." shi smiled. "Not to mention a pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, gym, and a well stocked rec room."

"Can't overlook the important features," Apple Blossom put in, chuckling.

"Of course not," James replied, grinning. "After all, we have to live here."

"I presume you've looked everything over?" Apple Blossom inquired.

"Yes sir," Macchiaboscosa replied.

"Good." Apple Blossom nodded. "Then you can help me get my gear squared away and show me around."

"Glad to, sir!"

The captain's cabin sat just below the bridge. Though not especially large it had an office and sitting room in addition to sleeping chamber. A stairway led down to the officer's wardroom, at the center of a block of cabins for use of the other officers including the chief engineer. Below that was the general mess, kitchens, rec room, and library. Another level down, on the main deck, were cabins for the rest of the crew. Under them, just above the engineering spaces, were the pool, gym, Jacuzzi, and sauna.

"She may not be a liner but I don't think we'll suffer," Apple Blossom commented.

"Indeed not, sir," Macchiaboscosa agreed.

Apple Blossom's communicator chimed. Shi fished it out of hir belt pouch. "Captain speaking," shi said, switching it on and putting it to hir ear.

"Chief Engineer Glinda has arrived," James reported.

"I'll be right up. Captain out." Apple Blossom put away the communicator and hurried to the bridge. There shi saw James conversing with a person who appeared to be a Terran but only because the console screened her from the waist down. She was, it turned out, a classical centaur; where a Terran's hips would have been her body joined the forequarters of a small horse. Her torso looked very Aryan, with fair skin, fine features, blue eyes, and long, golden blonde hair. Her horse body was pale chestnut with a long tail matching the hair on her head. She stood only a little shorter than James, which made her significantly taller than Apple Blossom. Fortunately Glinda's horse body wasn't literally horse sized but only nominally larger than Apple Blossom's cat body.

Apple Blossom's left ear twitched. About a hundred years ago cosmetic genetic engineering- popularly referred to as body sculpting- had been all the rage. Apple Blossom appreciated that as a genetically engineered creature hirself shi wasn't really in a position to point fingers but shi wondered if those people had ever given a thought to how their descendants would fare. On the other hand, around two thirds of Chakona's population were Chakats with the rest being predominantly Skunktaurs. As such structures and products were, as a matter of course, built to accommodate centauroids. So of all the planets in the Federation Chakona was probably the best place for someone like Glinda to be. Though Apple Blossom couldn't help wondering how those hooves would manage on a wet, pitching deck.

"Glinda, this is Captain Apple Blossom," James said. "Captain, this is our new chief engineer."

"Welcome aboard," Apple Blossom said, taking Glinda's hand. The engineer herself represented a fine piece of work; she was stunningly beautiful, perfectly proportioned, and looked no more than twenty-eight years old though Apple Blossom couldn't imagine anyone that young becoming a chief.

"I'm thirty-seven," Glinda supplied, smiling brightly. Like James her shoulder boards had three stripes. On any vessel but a sailing ship the engineers figured highly in the table of organization.

"I imagine you get asked a lot," Apple Blossom commented.

Glinda nodded. "I do."

"Has Mr. Crowley filled you in on our situation?" Apple Blossom inquired.

"Yes sir," Glinda replied. "If you don't mind I'd like to head below and have a look for myself."

Go ahead," Apple Blossom said. "I would appreciate it if you'd stop by this evening and tell me what you'd found."

"Glad to, sir," Glinda declared. "I'll see you just before dinner." Instead of using the elevator she took the stairs. As she disappeared the elevator doors opened and a Skunktaur appeared.

As the name implied hy resembled a skunk, having a solid black pelt except for a white blaze on the bridge of hys nose, a white mane, and a pair of stripes running parallel to his spine all the way to hys tail, where they joined together. Other than hys head and tail, though, hys physiology didn't much resemble a skunk's. Hys lower body seemed much more feline that musteline. But then Skunktaurs were called Chakat Kin because large parts of their genome had been copied directly from that of the Chakats.

"Third Officer Jamis?" James ventured.

"Yes sir," the Skunktaur replied. "Reporting for duty."

"Welcome aboard," Apple Blossom said, introducing everyone and using the opportunity to look Jamis over. Hy looked as entirely female as Glinda but in fact Skunktaurs, like Chakats, were hermaphrodites. Unlike Chakats they were only one sex at a time and changed back and forth periodically. Apple Blossom had often wondered what that was like but had never worked up the courage to ask. Now didn't seem like the time.

"Are you a telepath, Jamis?" Macchiaboscosa asked, glancing at hys forehead. Hy did not wear a headband as most Skunktaurs did.

"No sir," Jamis replied. "I'm a Bluepaw. Besides, I'm brain damaged."

Macchiaboscosa flinched. "Brain damaged?" Hir voice quavered slightly.

"I have a reasonably powerful telekinetic ability but I can't link telepathically with other Skunktaurs, so I can't join a gestalt," Jamis explained. "My family's been supportive but-" A shadow flicked across hys face. "They treat me like I'm disabled. I can't live like that so I joined the merchant marine. I like ships," hy added.

"If you can drive one I'll call that good enough," Apple Blossom said, primarily to break the tension shi felt developing. The line had certainly picked an eclectic crew for her.

"Makes one wonder what else the company personnel department found for us," James commented as Macchiaboscosa escorted Jamis to hys cabin.

"If they send us a crewman with two heads the only important thing is that they both do their jobs," Apple Blossom replied sharply, not the least because shi'd been thinking the same thing. The best way to stop that sort of thinking was before it started.

"Yes sir," James replied, sounding appropriately contrite.

"I'll be in my office," Apple Blossom continued. "You have the bridge, Number One."

"Aye aye, sir." James saluted.

Even with the ship still docked Apple Blossom found a great deal of work to be done. Engineering reports, weather reports, course plans, navigation charts, and cargo loading schedules all had to be reviewed and acted upon. After what seemed like a very short time Apple Blossom found Glinda coming in. A glance at the chronometer confirmed, rather to hir surprise, that it was almost dinner time.

"I've given everything a once over and it looks fine, even the bearing that seems to have caused such trouble during the shakedown," Glinda reported. "Of course we won't really know until we get under way." She frowned. "I wish I could have been on it for the shakedown."

Apple Blossom nodded. The line had shuffled the crew several times during the Ivar S. Janson's construction, which shi found disturbing. Normally the crew was selected early and took part not only in the shakedown but final assembly, to give them maximum time to settle into their jobs. On the other hand their maiden voyage would be a straight run from Curtisport to Berdoovia with good weather projected all the way. If the worst happened and the propulsion system shut down mysteriously they'd merely drift for a while and get towed back to port by a tug. Besides, the Merchant Marine Inspector wouldn't certify a ship with a wonky drive. "Thank you," Apple blossom said. "You can give me a detailed report after we eat." Shi pressed a key on her desk intercom. "This is the captain speaking. All officers will dine in the wardroom. Afterward will be a general meeting."

Since the cooks weren't expected until tomorrow dinner consisted of prepackaged sandwiches. The meeting went more or less as Apple Blossom expected. James reported that the Shipping Office had sent the wrong sectional charts, which needed to be replaced. Macchiaboscosa declared that there was no shampoo in the crew showers. Jamis had discovered all the fire hoses on the main deck coiled backwards. Glinda announced that someone had left the inspection cover off one of the sewage pumps and it had sprayed waste water all over the deck. Apple Blossom merely nodded and noted the recommended corrective procedures; all the problems encountered thus far were annoyances rather than serious dangers and, for the most part, easily corrected. Apple Blossom compiled a list of everything that couldn't be handled on board and forwarded it to Mr. Hanson, with a warning that if the items requested weren't delivered by tomorrow afternoon the departure schedule would be in jeopardy. In truth Apple Blossom wouldn't delay merely for a few rolls of toilet paper or some such but if Mr. Hanson thought shi would then perhaps he would move more swiftly.

Just as the meeting broke up a young Chakat appeared. Shi resembled a cougar, complete with tawny coat and black flashes on hir muzzle, but also with black tiger stripes on hir rump but nowhere else. "Fourth Officer Boomer reporting," shi said.

"We're just finishing up here," Apple Blossom said. "First Officer Crowley will bring you up to speed. I'll be in my office if anything comes up." It had been a long day and shi was tired. " Shi looked around at everyone. "I see that you all have your departments well in hand. Keep up the good work; I intend to slip our moorings on schedule."

"Yes sir," the assembled officers replied.

"Very good." Apple Blossom smiled. Everything was going just fine.

Apple Blossom ended up regretting hir optimism of the previous evening. The crew, the supplies, the Merchant Marine Inspector, and Mr. Hanson arrived all at the same time. By noon shi found hirself wondering what would happen if shi ordered Mr. Hanson keelhauled. Shi suspected the crew would comply enthusiastically but no doubt the head office wouldn't approve. In spite of it all, at precisely fifteen hundred and right on schedule, Apple Blossom gave the order to get under way. The deck crew pulled in the mooring lines, the screws started turning, and the Ivar S. Janson backed out of her berth. Now Apple Blossom faced her first major navigation challenge, which was moving hir ship four kilometers down river from the shipyard's fitting out basin to the container terminal. Shi kept an eye on the engineering panels but main propulsion functioned perfectly.

"Well, Mr. Hanson was right about one thing," Apple Blossom commented as they rounded another buoy. On either side the bustling city of Curtisport pushed right up to the river's banks.

"What's that, sir?" James asked, scanning ahead with his binoculars.

"She really does handle beautifully," Apple Blossom replied. "Helm, half a point to starboard and down four revs on both shafts."

"Rudder half a point right, reduce speed on both shafts by four revs, aye," Boomer replied briskly, keying the commands into the helm.

Apple Blossom walked out onto the portside bridge wing and looked forward. The bow started easing to he right. "Rudder amidships," shi called.

"Rudder amidships aye," Boomer called back. Inertia kept the bow swinging; it eased past the next buoy just as Apple Blossom had anticipated. Shi grinned; this was fun. The need to maintain steering way and the river's current had pushed their speed up, though, and up ahead the river made an S-bend, first left then right. Apple Blossom decided to take some way off. "Dead slow astern," shi ordered. Ivar's propellers rotated in opposite directions so, when reversed, they would thrust directly astern in a straight line. A single propeller, or even two right handed ones, would cause the stern to kick right under reverse thrust.

"Dead slow astern both shafts, rudder amidships, aye," Boomer called.

As shi watched Boomer key in the commands Apple Blossom knew at once that something was wrong because of the way Boomer's finger's hesitated briefly. Then something flashed on the engineering panel and an alarm sounded. "Sir, zero revs on both shafts," Boomer reported. "We're not getting the reverse thrust."

Apple Blossom could see that merely by looking at the status display. Shi dashed to the intercom and hammered it with hir thumb. "Captain to Engineering. What's going on down there?"

"Sir, I'm getting an over-torque error on both shafts," Glinda a replied. "Resetting now."

"Hurry it up," Apple Blossom growled. The bow continued easing to the right. Up ahead luxury condos and upscale retail shops lined the waterfront. Ivar S. Janson's flared bow would cut through them like a gigantic router blade.

"Fuck!" Glinda snarled. "I'm getting a fatal error now. Switching to backup."

Seconds passed, dragging on to half a minute, then three quarters. No one on the bridge said a word. Boomer started breathing raggedly, white showing all around hir eyes. As chief pilot shi understood what was happening as well or better than anyone else. Even at a walking pace thirty-six thousand tons carried a tremendous amount of inertia. The point of no return would arrive long before the point of actual impact.

For Apple Blossom it was like taking a ground car around a corner on a rainy day and feeling the back end break away. Ivar S. Janson was as completely out of control as the skidding car and would end up exactly the same way. On the engineering panel two more warnings appeared.

"Sir, the propeller pitch controls are locked and the backup data buss won't initialize for some reason," Glinda reported. "I'm cold starting the whole system."

"How long?" Apple Blossom demanded.

"Five minutes, absolute minimum."

Apple Blossom glanced at the master chronometer, then at the bank. Too long by far, shi realized. Shi snapped hir fingers and pointed at James. He already stood by the communication panel, which he keyed. "Mayday, mayday, Ivar S. Janson to harbor control, we've lost all propulsion and require immediate assistance," he reported. To his credit he sounded perfectly calm. Apple Blossom swallowed, glad that shi wasn't calling it in. Hir very first effort as captain was turning into a fiasco. Shi felt sick; both hir stomachs churned uncomfortably.

"A harbor tug's on it's way, E.T.A. ten minutes," James reported.

"Very good." Apple Blossom nodded but it wouldn't matter; she predicted impact in no more than twelve minutes. "Helm, sound the horn and keep it up," shi ordered. Shi managed to speak calmly even though shi felt as if hir insides had been sucked out, leaving hir an empty shell.

Seconds passed, chaining into minutes. Apple Blossom moved to the starboard bridge wing. By now the Ivar S. Janson's bow lay well outside the fairway; the ship itself was canted diagonally across the river. Through hir binoculars shi saw people in the shops and on the promenades looking hir way. But all they did was glance as they passed. Some even stopped to watch. Run, God damn it! Apple Blossom wanted to scream. But it wouldn't do a lick of good unless shi could yell as loud as the ship's horn, which pealed blast after blast from its place atop the monkey's island.

A Peace Force tiltrotor circled down and flew around the superstructure. Apple Blossom saw the helmeted pilots through the bubble canopy but couldn't imagine what they might do to help. Apparently they couldn't either; after one pass they pulled off.

"Sir!" Boomer shrieked. "Main propulsion is on line!"

Apple Blossom glanced at the chronometer. Eight and a half minutes had passed. It was too late but what could shi do? "All back one quarter, helm right one half."

"All back one quarter, helm right one half aye," Boomer called back.

With the propellers running in reverse, water flow past the rudder would kick the stern to the right, which would arrest the bow's motion in that direction. With luck the ship might stop parallel to the shore instead of running straight into it.

With glacial slowness the bow stopped swinging. Apple Blossom looked down; the water along the ship's side had turned brown. She was feeling bottom; wash from her propellers was picking up silt. That meant they were out of the shipping channel and into shallow water. Apple Blossom looked forward; the bow might have begun to creep left but it didn't matter. The bank turned left more sharply. They were going to hit. Now shi saw people on the promenades looking alarmed, grabbing one another and hurrying away. In a restaurant hanging out over the water people leapt over tables in their haste to flee.

"All stop," Apple Blossom ordered. Shi'd done all shi could to avert disaster; chipping a propeller blade wouldn't help the situation any. At the communications panel shi activated the ship's public address system. "This is the captain speaking," shi said. "All hands brace for impact. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. All hands brace for impact."

The overhanging restaurant with its enormous windows vanished beneath Ivar S. Janson's bow. Any minute now...

As with everything in this whole affair the collision happened very slowly. Windows shattered as the ship's bow scraped along them. Then walls buckled as the rim of steel drove in like an advancing glacier. The roof of the restaurant dragged across the foredeck as the bow cut away the walls holding it up. Apple Blossom heard clearly the crash and roar as glass and timber shattered. It went on and on; the destruction it wrought seemed to have no effect on the ship's forward motion. Finally the soft river bank accomplished what fragile buildings could not, dragging Ivar S. Janson to a halt. Apple Blossom slumped.

"Sir, the harbor tug is alongside," Macchiaboscosa reported.

Apple Blossom merely nodded. Extricating the ship and moving along wouldn't be hard at all. Shi could probably do it even without the tug's aid. Getting free from the repercussions of what had just happened wouldn't be so easy.

At first glance, a person might think that a bomb had gone off in the engineering spaces. Console and panel faces stood open or dismounted on the floor, with loops of cable strung out every which way. Glinda strode grimly through it all, while at least two dozen technicians ran tests on everything in sight.

At least something's being done, Apple Blossom thought to hirself as shi stepped out of the elevator. The collision had touched off a storm of controvery, with inquiry after inquiry looking into the problem. If they'd all been concerned with finding out what had gone wrong Apple Blossom wouldn't have worried so much, but most of it seemed to be nothing but the usual politicking and finger pointing.

To Be Continued