Sunday, January 24, 2016

One Sunny Night: The Serial! Part Four

Just before sundown the ship slowed down, and the anchor splashed over the side. A sailor rapped on both doors and told them “the captain requests the pleasure of your company at dinner,” in one big hastily-memorized rush. He brought bowlfuls of fish and water for the tiger-striped dog, which she nosed with interest. The doctor climbed out of his berth looking frail and tired. The harbormaster was awake, and Rufe carried her upstairs to the top deck.
A festive sunset painted the sky as they filed into the cabin at the rear of the main deck. In front was a windowed room containing the huge wooden-spindled wheel. Behind that was a salon, compact and opulent. There was a bookcase full of leatherbound books, a writing desk with jeweled bottles of ink, a table for eight, several mirrors and paintings, a guitar, a globe in a fancy wooden stand, some hanging plants, a brass telescope, a brass longitudometer, a bar, a harpsichord, a little red bird in a cage hanging from a ceiling beam. Toward the back and behind a carved-wood screen was the captain’s bed, covered with a paisley quilt and tasseled pillows. On the floor were thick Oriental rugs.
The table was set for dinner, with the captain already seated in the largest chair. Sonny squeezed into a seat near him, not sure if he had an appetite. Kai was pouring from a decanter, showing them his tattooed hands. He had letters on his knuckles, spelling out “hold” and “fast.” The pig at the base of his thumb was joined by stylized chickens and rabbits and fish that danced across the backs of his wrists, and he even had spirals going across his palms, although parts of those were obliterated by ridges of callus.
“I apologize for the impromptu nature of the refreshments, as I was not expecting passengers,” he said as he handed cups all around. “Neither was I expecting terrorists to attack Argalia.”
Kayliss muttered something below her breath. Rufe snorted.
The captain took a deep sip of whatever was in his cup and went on. “The cargo that formerly occupied the hold in which you are currently staying was in a warehouse adjacent to the wharf, where it was consumed by flame. Fortunately, it was heavily insured, and I have no doubt that the insurance company’s report will mention the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘attack.’”
“It’s quite a lovely hold,” Risha said. “Thank you for accommodating us on such short notice.”
“You can drop us off anywhere along the coast,” Rufe said. “A town would be nice.”
“Our destination is a complicated subject and discussion must wait until the table is clear enough to accommodate maps.” Kai tossed back the rest of his drink as sailors playing waiters brought in food. There was a tureen of soup, and platters of fish prepared several different ways, and steaming bowls of rice and noodles and vegetables. It all fit into cleverly designed wooden racks built into the table in anticipation of rough sea. The sea wasn’t rough at all at the moment. It was flat, the setting sun glittering on its surface, a waxing crescent moon ready to take its place.
Sonny most definitely did have an appetite, and everything he tasted was delicious. Risha shared his opinion and kept up a running conversation with the captain about food, and about his chef, who came from Osakobyoto. Her face was scrubbed clean and her hair tied back in a loose braid, and she looked beautiful in a natural and effortless way. Kayliss sat in stark contrast beside her, looking awkward and plain. Her unflatteringly short hair had been brushed, and the light streak was still there, bleached into the side in what Sonny assumed was a failed attempt at decoration.
The harbormaster’s name was Leah Dean Blocker, Dee to her friends, and she was stretched sideways with her splinted leg propped up on another chair. The spaciness in her eyes hinted she was still feeling Quicksilver’s anesthesia, and the lines in her face indicated some of the pain was still getting through. Rufe sat beside her, guarding her bad leg and occasionally crowding Sonny with his hamlike elbow. The doctor sat on her other side, arranging shrimp tails in neat rows on his plate and staring into space.
After a rich, heavy dessert, the sailors replaced the last of the dishes with a steaming silver coffee service as the captain brought out a portfolio of nautical charts printed on waterproof paper, which he spread out for their perusal. Sonny blinked sleepily at the looping squiggles. He suddenly felt tired and overwhelmed. He wanted to collapse in a fit of tears until some wise, soothing adult appeared to whisk him off to a cool safe place where he could sleep for a month, and then wake up back home, in his bed, to the scent of pancakes.
He was wrestling with the idea that wasn’t going to happen. A cold stony ache had developed in his chest. He kept telling himself he could get emotional later, when he was alone, and wasn’t surrounded by strangers likely to treat him like a baby if he acted like one.
Since the charts confused everyone, which made Sonny feel slightly justified, the captain grabbed an old wooden globe from a decorative brass stand, palming it like a basketball and spinning it on the table for them before stabbing his spiralled finger into the Carribbean Sea.
It was an antique globe, coated with layers of preservative. The current configuration of the Mericas had been painted on top of the carved lines depicting what had once been there, before the meteors, and the dome generations, and all the rest of it. The western cluster of volcanoes, which had opened up after the meteor strike, were painted in red over the landbridge that formerly connected Namerica with Samerica, currently an archipelago of thousands of islands.
Sonny’s eyes immediately went to Royal Beach, smack in the middle of the north coast of Samerica. On the old map this was right in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, but now it was the country of Braganza, a popular vacation destination and the middle of the three Samerican countries. Vanram was the one on the west, a jagged shape separated from Braganza by ridges of mountain.
Kai’s finger was in the Carribbean, which was much larger in the current configuration, right above Argalia and only a pinky width away from Royal Beach. Three days on the Principessa Larisse, which was much slower than the Lono.
 The captain dragged his finger across to Zentaro, the country east of Braganza. “We’ll be landing here in approximately two weeks.”
Sonny cleared his throat. “I live right on the way. In Royal Beach. Maybe you could drop me off?”
“Out of the question.  My navigator is a Siren, and Braganza forbids them.”
Sonny swallowed hard at this confirmation. Of course the captain had a Siren working with him. There weren’t too many other explanations for a sailing ship moving over the water fast enough to tow water skiers without even using its sails.
“They’re not legal in Vanram either,” said Blocker.
“That’s why they needed a doctor,” Quicksilver sighed. “I’m still thrashed. Try manufacturing several million highly specialized microscopic robots in a factory implanted below your spleen sometime and see how you like it. And I’d just done a full restore on Sonny.”
“Nepenthe encountered a projectile trap. In Braganza they have toxic coral planted all around the perimeter and I am therefore forced to give it a wide berth.”
“I’m not hearing any of this,” Blocker muttered, sinking her nose into her coffee cup.
“Two weeks.” Rufe drummed his fingers on the table. “How much money would convince you to shift course?”
“That’s funny.” Risha smiled. “I was about to ask the same thing. For example, what if we were to sail north?”
“North?” Rufe screwed up his face in outrage. “To Namerica?”
The continent of Namerica had receded considerably since the globemakers practiced their art, with a south coast that sliced west from Raleigh and a northern border encroached by frost, similar to the south end of Samerica. Hogging most of the continent was a country called Bonterra, which encompassed everything west of the Virginialina sprawl and the United States of Scose. Risha’s fingernail, her red-and-gold polish beginning to chip, was pointing at a spot toward the northwest. “It’s a town called Chianina,” she explained.
The captain drummed his tattooed fingers and stared at her. “You are proposing I navigate through some network of freshwater rivers?”
“There’s a train, from Austin. That’s on the south coast. We can take it all the way to Chianina. Once we get there, I’ll give you a lot of gold, and then you can be on your way.”
“Out of the question.” Rufe folded his arms and leaned back, doing a good job of looking large. “I need to get back to Vanram as soon as possible.”
“Why aren’t you there now?” Blocker asked him. Rufe deflated somewhat. “If you hadn’t thrown me a rope I’d still be there, trying to restore some order. Presuming I managed to survive having a cannon fired at me.”
The table erupted in an argument between Kai and Blocker and Rufe. Sonny found himself eye-to-eye with Kayliss, which reminded him of the last time he’d been held at gunpoint. “What are your people doing with my family?”
She stared down at her own plain fingernails. “Protocols.”
“There’s no engagement,” Rufe bellowed, smacking the table. “Therefore, there are no rules of engagement. No protocols. Unless my country has declared war on yours since we left, which is doubtful, although it would probably be a good idea.”
“They’re safe!” She held up her arm to ward off an imaginary blow. “Nobody’s going to hurt them. There’s a town already built for them. In Chelisary. There’s room for fifty thousand people, with shops and restaurants, and a park.”
When she realized everyone was staring at her, Kayliss blushed bright red and focused even more intently on her nails.
Sonny’s fingers were digging into the arms of his chair. Rufe leaned over and gave him a shoulder hug that was probably meant to be reassuring. “They’re hostages, right? That’s why they took everyone alive. Some high rollers in that crowd. Lots of ransom money, am I correct?”
“I don’t know about any ransom, and I wasn’t involved in the planning, but I’ve seen the houses.” Kayliss bit her lip.
“We don’t have a lot of money to pay a ransom.” Sonny’s voice changed pitch again. He had hoped it had finally stabilized somewhere in a low tenor range as the uncertainty of never really knowing whether a boy voice or a man voice would come out of his throat was annoying.
“How old are you, Sonny?” Risha laid a gentle hand on his wrist.
“Fifteen.” A moment after he said it he wondered if he should have lied, in case maybe she might be interested in, perhaps, an eighteen year old. Not that she would. She was in a league he hadn’t even realized existed until recently. Not only that, she was actually touching his wrist.
“And you’re from Royal Beach?” She gave his wrist one last comforting squeeze and withdrew her hand, leaving tingling imprints where her fingers had been.
“I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve heard it’s really nice.” She smiled, showing several dimples, and and Sonny sat there, transfixed by how beautiful she looked. The fact that she was being nice to him had nearly reduced him to tears. “I don’t want you to worry, Sonny. If there should turn out to be a ransom, I’ll pay it. In gold. You may have to help me get to Chianina, which is where I keep my gold.”
“We should go there,” Sonny said in a scratchy voice.
Kai burst out laughing. “Do you have your own gold mine out there, full of dwarves with pickaxes and pointed hats?”
“More of a trust fund. In Bonterra we do business in gold. No bank fees, no nosy tax collectors.”
“I do business over the internet, like normal people.” Rufe was on his feet pacing, careful to avoid the décor. “I can live with Zentaro in two weeks, although if you can expedite me to the coast any faster I will authorize a fund transfer to your shipping company or whatever other private drop you’d like.”
“Are we voting?” Blocker shifted in her seat and grimaced with pain. Quicksilver leaned over and touched his fingers to her wrist, then squeezed her bicep. When he took his hand away Sonny could see the indentations in his fingertips from his retractible syringes. “If we’re having an election, I vote for a nice clean hospital. I believe Zentaro has those, whereas I believe in Bonterra they still use leeches.”
“We have medicine,” Risha snapped, her sweetness melting away just enough to give a glimpse of anxiety bubbling beneath.
“Are you stable enough to travel?” Kai offered Blocker a cup of something, which she accepted with a trembling hand.
“Here I am, traveling,” she replied.
“She’s stable enough,” Quicksilver said. “I daresay she’d be a tad happier in nice clean sheets with a painkiller feed and a couple hundred hours of soap operas. I know I would.”
“It’s a two day train ride from my house to Midsea. Another few hours on the dirigible and you’re back home in Deuce.”
Deuce was an aircity. There were three of them in the Mericas, although only two contained people. On the globe they were represented by spots of silver. The one in the Atlantic had a long name full of words like “Administration” and everyone just called it Justice for short. The one in the Pacific had an equally long name, and since it consisted of two identical towers, everyone called it Deuce.
“Deuce is just as good as Zentaro as far as I’m concerned,” Rufe said. “Which one is fastest?”
“Primarily, one cannot accurately adjudge how long it will take to navigate from one point to the next in deepwater. Secondarily, I direct your attention to the orange section, which is infested with pliosaurs.”
“A certain country that I won’t mention made them during the war,” Rufe said, while glaring at Kayliss. “Trying to shut off our shipping traffic. There’s a bunch of them off our west coast. Megalodons as well. The scientists assure us they’ll die out in a generation or two, but so far that hasn’t happened.”
“The Sirens have managed to contain them with coral barricades.” The captain threw Kayliss a fierce expression. “If you inform your overlords of that fact I’ll rip your tongue out of your skull with my bare hands.”
“There are ways to get past them,” she replied, unrattled by the threat.
“They don’t often venture outside the barricades. Encroaching into their territory is unwise. In order to reach Namerica we’d have to pass right next to it. I can’t tell you whether that’s feasible until I’ve looked at all the information and until I have discussed with the crew whether they choose to take unnecessary risks because a beautiful woman claims there is gold waiting on the other side.” Kai sighed and rubbed his forehead.
“She has the gold.” The doctor poured himself a cup of the same thing Blocker was drinking and tasted it, making a face. “Mizz Risha Petrichor has plenty of gold.”
“Among other things.” Risha wrestled the bottle away from Quicksilver and poured a slug into her coffee cup. “I have to be home to get my hands on it, and that’s in Chianina. And I have to be there by May first.”
“I shall bid all of you goodnight,” Kai said. “I will let you know what is decided.”
He began turning off gaslamps. A sailor lit their way back to the hold, where Sonny was enthusiastically greeted by the tiger-striped dog.
“She’s bonded to you,” Quicksilver said fuzzily as he climbed into his bunk. “An animal like that carries a chip inside her head, sort of similar to the apparatus I’ve got. Makes her bond very strongly to a particular owner. I think during the restore she fixated herself on you. Her name is Hina, by the way. She’s a reconstructed thylacine, which was a marsupial wolf that lived in the South Pacific hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
Seconds after words stopped pouring out of him, the doctor began to snore.
“Hina,” Sonny said, experimentally. The tiger-striped thylacine yipped ecstatically, licking his face. He crawled into his own bed and wrapped his arms around her, and fell asleep holding her tight.


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