And so.

You square up behind the bar and set your shoulders, filling your chest with long deep and even breaths, feeling your awareness expand through your limbs: along your biceps, down your thighs, out to the tip of each digit, and as well through the powerful muscles of your chest and back and abdomen, where most of the load will be borne.

You shift your feet against the dry boards, so that the blunt tips of your toeclaws rest against the wood—blunt, but strong and hard, and as well that they are; doing this barefooted, you'll need every ounce of traction you can find, and digging in your nails might well make the difference between success and failure—between effort well spent, and effort wasted.

And then you shift your weight forward, onto the bar, and begin to push. For all the give in it, you may as well be trying to shove a mountain out of your way—all the worse for the mountain, then, you decide. Your claws dig in, and the long strong muscles of your calves and thighs tighten—then it's the turn of your flanks and belly and back and chest—and finally your biceps and forearms add their own measure of force, as they transmit the work of your whole body into the bar and into the capstan and into the line.

And still the harpoon does not move. Still implacable as a mountain—as you dig in your claws hard enough to dent the well-holystoned wood of the deck, as every muscle in your body winds tight as a watchspring and tighter still, as your ears go from laid flat back to stiff upright with the sheer force of your labor, even your tail bowstring taut as your lips wrinkle back from your gritted teeth, head thrown back to the sky and a groaning keening screaming howl of effort tearing free of your throat, tears blurring your sight with the blood pounding in your head and you're sure every instant that in the next instant you will surely die—still the harpoon does not move.

And then it does.

Only a tiny bit, at first, little enough that you might have imagined it—were you not now locked in such an agony of supreme effort that there is no room for thought of any kind, except that determination not to shame yourself further before your captain which lashes you on, as with a whip of fire, to exertion beyond any you've known before—beyond any of which you even imagined yourself capable.

But that tiny shift is followed by another, and another still—each more noticeable, until finally you find yourself shifting a foot, taking half a step forward to follow the capstan bar which seems as if by its own volition to move now, slowly, so slowly—away from you. Half a step, and then, after an interminable interval, another. And, after ages more, another still. It is working. The realization comes over you suddenly, and with it a wave of relief, a balm to your soul which you find as much cause for shame as for surprise.

Since regaining the quarterdeck—since regaining a strangeness which, by comparison with the far greater one preceding, seemed indistinguishable from normality—you had all but forgotten about the beast below, wounded and dying and helpless save that you should choose to try to save its life. That you had a task in hand, you knew—but, beyond that, you were driven by imperatives much closer to home: by your guilt, and by your pride, and by your desire not to compound the degree to which you have already disappointed your captain.

But there is that, about the fire now growing in your every muscle as you strain in an agony of exertion beyond anything you've ever known, which burns away such things, and leaves you in a curious way alone with yourself, alone in the very core of yourself, flames rising higher on every side. Alone enough to remember a little while, not so long ago, when you were not alone. And though you cannot hope again to share that strange and wonderful presence, or even once more to experience the simple dark delightful heat of its mere ever-shifting touch, the wild free helplessness you too briefly knew, tiny and cherished in its vast firm unyielding grasp—though you know that you cannot possibly hope for anything ever again which will fire your very soul with such white heat as you felt in that too brief interlude now concluded, you also know, now, in every half-step around the capstan, in every inch of line wound on the hub, that, no matter how badly the matter comes out for you—no matter if you do drop dead of apoplexy, or end up swung from that yardarm—die however you may before this is over, the deep thing will not.

So much, at least, you have certainly achieved: you have saved a life far greater, far older, far stranger, than your own. You need only not stop—and, though the fire rises on every side, and every mote of force you wring from your muscles now is a desperate fight against tremor and overexhausted collapse, you know now that you are equal—that you are more than equal—to the task. And as you walk the capstan around by main strength now flagging but the task easier every second too, the tears in your eyes are not only from the strain. Suffer as you shall through all the hells your captain will surely find for you—die as you shall, when she has grown replete of your torture—this much you have surely done: you have rescued that great beast of the deep, and it will not now die. And that seems like enough.

And suddenly—as suddenly as it first came—the last of the resistance disappears, and the capstan bar seems simply to vanish out from under you as the hub spins freely, the harpoon at last fully drawn and swinging unseen alongside the curve of the hull.

You weren't expecting it, and without the bar under you, you can't even try to stand. It seems to take an age—you have time, all the time in the world, to watch the world swoop and whirl around you, the boards of the deck come up to meet you. It would hurt, you imagine, except that every limp-wrung inch of you is aflame with agony already, and your hurts of the moment must pale against those to come when the captain has you wholly at her mercy, and merely smashing your muzzle against unforgiving wood can hardly compare with either of those.