Chapter 9:  The Past

It was not too long before a Yarec found a sign, which told him the name of the next hamlet and the number of kilometers to get there.  With the way Yarec felt, the distance seemed daunting, but he kept walking.  However, it was not much farther on that he found another sign, which marked the location of a bus stop.  The dinged metal plate listed the name of the bus company and an approximate schedule for the two vehicles that were supposed to pass by daily.  Yarec decided that the presence of the bus stop was a reward for his perseverance and sat down to wait.

When the bus arrived, it was an old-fashioned propane-electric hybrid.  It had a rounded, aerodynamic shape and huge wheels.  The spots of chipped paint along its side were covered with thick layers of transparent sealant to ward off rust.  The driver accepted some of Yarec’s foreign chits as payment, and the bus left at the posted departure time.  The vehicle was only half full, and Yarec got one of the soft, faded bench seats to himself.  On an ordinary day, Yarec suspected, the driver might have waited until he had a full load of passengers.  However, with what Yarec had paid, the man had already made a week’s worth of profits—if he could find someone else who would take the chits at face value.

Yarec rode along south, to the port where he had planned to disembark from the Threepenny Queen.  The vehicle made good time, without extraneous stops; if there was nobody at the next terminal waiting to hop on board, the driver could afford to drive right on by.  The bus stopped every day at dusk, and Yarec spent each night in a hostel, holed up in a triple-tiered wooden bunk.  At night, in the men’s dormitories, fellows would always be gambling, keeping their running tallies of losses or winnings on gray scraps of paper.  The hostels were generally dismal places, but the food at the first one was surprisingly good.  They served a few sauteed greens and a hash made from wild tubers and some kind of protein.  To drink they had some kind of alcoholic sap.  It must have been tapped from local trees and fermented in small batches; it tasted sweet and fresh right out of of the cloudy glass bottles.  It was not very strong—certainly not enough to make Yarec ungainly—but he did not indulge in more than one cup.  The gamblers, however, were still drinking it—weakened with well water—late into the night.  They were hunched at their little round table, cards in front of them, cups beside their left elbows, as Yarec fell asleep.

Having paid for a lukewarm shower that first night—to wash away the slime of salt and sand—Yarec was dressed and ready to go early.  After that, it was another bumpy leg on the bus, then another hostel, located just outside the town Yarec wanted.  He let himself sleep in longer on the second morning, until a worker with a short red broom prodded him to get up and clear out.  The man’s accent was difficult to follow, but the message was clear.  Yarec swung down from his bunk, with a clunk that made the floorboards vibrate, collected his meager belongings, and walked out the door.

He headed to the old market.  It was a grassy lot, surrounded by a three-meter concrete palisade, from which awnings could be strung to protect the vendors from tropical rain.  Today, the heavens were clear, but it was not a regular market day, and there were only a few merchants with carts, set up on the east side of the plaza, under the shade of the wall.  Yarec bought some cheaply sewn trousers to be polite, along with a mug of some kind of synthetic gravy.  Then there was no point in dithering or hiding his purpose.  He asked the vendors if they had seen any other gringos, either working in the area or recently passing through.  Of course, everyone agreed, the place to start was at the mine northeast of town—lots of North Americans there.

Yarec thanked everyone who had chimed in to help him, and bought a few more small items he did not need.  Their directions set him on a gravel road running higher up into the coastal hills.  The roadbed was broad enough for heavy trucks and had clearly seen quite a bit of recent activity, although there were no vehicles in sight that day.  Yarec watched the sun move up toward its zenith, and as it began to sag back down toward the western horizon, he pulled out some dry protein balls he had purchased in town and chewed them slowly, his jaws grinding in time with his footsteps.

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It felt like first light when he woke up, with the pale sand matted in his hair, but a quick glance up at the sky showed he was wrong.  It was midmorning according to the sun.  Yarec found something soggy in his sticky wet trouser pocket.  He shoved half of it into his mouth, made a face, and tossed the rest away.

Looking out over the bright gray water, Yarec saw no sign of the ship.  The crew might have regained power and sailed away; or the ship might just have drifted out of sight; or the problems might have turned out to be even more serious that they had seemed, so the ship could have taken on water and sunk.  It was easiest, Yarec found, to imagine the last possibility.  As far as he was concerned, the Three Penny Queen and its crew were dead.

Yarec gazed left and right, following the curve of the beach.  Suddenly he felt a pang of fear.  I hope this isn’t an offshore island, he thought.  Another swim, to a distant mainland, felt like more than he could handle right then.

He stretched and paced.  For the moment, the best plan was to follow the beach.  The sand was a beautiful crystalline white, except where it was discolored by the streaks of rusty black and red exuding from the sporadic hunks of steel that had washed up along the shore.  Little flea-like critters squatted in tight clusters.  They were  still, apart from occasional twitching, until Yarec’s foot hit the sand a few centimeters away.  Then the bugs started springing in all directions.  They brushed past Yarec’s legs and kept on hopping until they reached a safe-seeming distance.

It was a long, tedious walk past all those skittering little things.  The shoreline curved toward Yarec’s left as he walked approximately south.  Eventually, he reached the tip of a south-pointing promontory.  As Yarec approached the point, a line of rocky hills had marched closer and closer to the water, leaving only narrow strip of sand between the gray bluffs and the warm, rolling surf.  Yarec found himself holding his breath as he reached the spot where the rocks and water finally met.  If he was on an island, in a moment he would know.

He scrambled up three or four meters of smooth-weathered rock and saw a welcome sight waiting to the east.  The rocky point was not the southern tip of an island.  On the other side of the promontory, the ocean had carved out a rounded bay, like a bite chomped out of the coastline.  It looked like a poor harbor, and there was no sign of current habitation, just some blocky concrete ruins peeking out of the tropical vegetation halfway around the bay.  It would take Yarec an hour or two  to circumnavigate the bay, but then he could continue along a broader beach that continued south by southeast.

It would be shorter to swim across.  Yarec considered the possibility for only a moment, before discarding the idea.  It would be more dangerous; there was only a little time to be saved that way; and he was thoroughly tired of swimming.

Yarec turned and started north again, following along the curve of the shoreline.  Suddenly, he was being pelted with raindrops.  The drops were large and warm, bursting against his shoulders and hair and emitting a rancid odor.  When they were only a few, Yarec batted at them pointlessly, but soon they became a torrent.  It’s like being bombarded with rotten blueberries, he thought.  As a child, Yarec had learned to find blueberries in the mountains near his home.  They grew in those rocky ravines that were still watered by streams, and they actually came in many colors—blue, purple, black, and even red.

Yarec’s nostalgia for the times he had fed himself on those tiny sweet berries distracted him from the rank-smelling rain.  He almost ceased to notice it, until he realized that the downpour was coming to an end.  The gray-brown storm cloud over him was being borne out to sea on the trade winds, leaving its stink on the wet sand.  Yarec hoped he would not smell too strongly when he met the locals.  He was soaked through, now with a strange-smelling mixture of seawater and rain.  Yarec was pretty much immune to ordinary discomforts; he processed the feelings of cold or nausea or headache and set them aside unless they were extremely severe.  However, if Yarec smelled as rank as he felt right then, anyone he met might not be inclined to treat him amicably.

He finally found a road just a few hundred yards inland.  It was sheltered in the lee of a line of dunes from the roughest effects of any storms that hit the sea.  It was unpaved, but Yarec could see that the strip it followed had once been the site of a concrete superhighway.  When it was brand new, the highway must have glittered in the sun—white like the fine local sand—but it had either eroded away completely in the salt-tinged air, or its surface had been harvested by local builders.  Rectangles cut from old, strong roadways were cheap, strong, and durable.

The voyage was growing unpleasant.  Yarec endured the ribbing of the crew and his intensifying seasickness, which he did everything he could to conceal.  The worst of both came on the same day.  He spent the whole afternoon making repairs to the main cargo crane, while the deck was pitching left and right underneath hm.  He only managed to eat a few bites of supper, then headed back to his bunk.  But when he laid down, there was a huge, unpleasant-sounding squelch and rotten marine stench.  Yarec jumped up and pulled back the blanket.  Underneath lay the slimy corpse of a jellyfish, more than meter across..  It was missing most of its tentacles, and it must have already been dead when it was fished out of the water.  Outside the cabin door, Yarec heard drunken snickering.  He ignored it and cleaned up his bed as best he could, dumping the heap of invertebrate flesh back into the warm tropical waters.

They were only about two days short of Yarec’s destination when the ship’s power went out.  It started with a fire in the engine room.  Shortly after supper, the crew cabins were jolted by an alarm.  It made a high-pitched screaming hiss, before cutting out as abruptly as it began, as a conflagration spreading in the engine room disabled the electricity.   There was almost complete darkness below decks.  Yarec and the others caught the dirty scent of burning oil, and they scrambled down toward the bottom of the ship in search of the source.  The ship’s engineer led the way, with a flashlight he had pulled down off an emergency bracket.  The flashlight provided the only light they had.  The ship’s emergency batteries were moribund.

Descending the first flight of stairs from the galley, they could see the coiled shadows of the smoke.  They streamed upward like rivulets of oil.  Yarec could feel the heat too.  It was coming from the engine room, another level down, but the engineer stopped at the first landing.  The others, perched behind him on the narrow staircase, followed the flashlight beam down.  The lower reaches of the stairwell were submerged in smoke, churning out of the unseen doorway of the engine room.  With so little light, it was hard to be sure, but Yarec thought he could see the clouds swell significantly in just the few seconds he was watching.

Yarec slit a piece off the hem of his shirt.  He stretched the fabric across his face, covering his mouth and nose.  I wish I had some goggles to protect my eyes.  The engineer, Rolandson, had put on his own improvised mask, and the rest of the men tried to follow suit.  Someone in the back had found another flashlight, brighter.  Under the two smokey beams, the group proceeded cautiously downward.  Yarec kept one hand close to his face, sheltering his eyes from the smoke much as he might have sheltered them from the sun.  He reached the lower landing and squinted toward the source of the billows.  Strangely, standing there in the midst of the smoke as it curled forth from the arched doorway of the engine room, the blackness seemed less absolute.  Yarec could see flickers of fire through the half-open door, outlining the blocky shapes of the generator cabinets.

Rolandson hesitated, then plunged through the doorway into the heart of the black cloud.  Up to that moment, there had been a terrified hush over the crew.  A few whispered instructions had been all the group needed as they headed down to investigate.  Now the engineer started hollering orders, and there was a din of boots against the metal decking.  Yarec found himself shunted to the back of the group.  More trusted crewmen piled after Rolandson into the cramped confines of the engine room.  However, the men remaining outside were still left with plenty to do.  Captain Andersen, emerged from his cabin where he had been dozing, appeared above them at the top of the stairs, shouting orders of his own.  The captain handed out more flashlights, and the crew rushed off on various secondary errands.

Yarec was assigned to check the freshwater system.  The pump controls were located in a narrow closet below the galley.  Yarec flashed his small light over the gauges.  The indicator lights were dead, but the analog pressure gauge was still pointing to its usual healthy value.  Yarec looked lower.  The temperature reading looked fine.  The water from the taps in the galley was always warmer than it should have been, but it quenched the thirst of hot, tired seamen.  Below the instruments was an exposed segment of glass-walled pipe, so the freshwater running through the system could be inspected visually.  It looked as clear as ever, although it would have been hard to spot a subtle discoloration in the limited light.

Yarec watched the tube carefully, but there was nothing to see.  The water inside was still and invisible.  He could smell more smoke coming up from the engines, and he heard footsteps echoing along the decks.  Down below, somebody was coughing orders, the words interspersed between whooshes of fire extinguisher foam.  Elsewhere on the ship, there was a sense of panic, but by the pump controls nothing was moving.  Yarec was about to go find Captain Andersen again, to be assigned another probably equally pointless task.  He reached for the handle of the closet door, fumbling in the darkness.

As his light danced carelessly over the instruments, Yarec thought he saw something move.  It was a pale streak, like a thing line of bubbles running along the glass inspection tube.  Yarec focused his light on the tube again, but the movement did not repeat itself.  Cautiously, he scanned up and down the instrument panel, looking for anything else he might have missed.  When he reached the pressure gauge at the top of the array, he stopped.  The thin red needle had crept a few notches downward.

It might mean nothing.  The system had lost a small amount of pressure, but that kind of behavior was no surprise when the pumps were not operating.  It was just something he ought to report, so they knew to have somebody else check again later—once the ship’s primary problem had been addressed.

The closet door closed with an awkward clang.  Yarec turned, and his flashlight beam felt out the route back to the galley.  If he had been aboard a few weeks longer, Yarec probably could have made the trip in complete darkness.  Just an occasional touch with his hand, identifying corners and joiner doors, would have guided around any obstacles between where he was and where he needed to go.  He already knew there were two left turns, then fourteen steps up to the hall outside the galley.  However, he had not quite mastered the distances.  It was surprising, actually, that he was taking so long to memorize the floorplan below decks.  He would have expected to have the whole thing mapped out perfectly in his head after only a couple of days.  This time, it seemed to be requiring an unusual amount of rote practice to learn all the areas.  Perhaps the fits of seasickness were distracting him.

The galley was lit up with an old-fashioned methane-burning lantern.  The gas knob was turned down low, to conserve the fuel, and the lantern’s white light left long shadows lurking behind the chairs and table.  When Yarec got back, some of the other crewmen were just sitting down, waiting.  The fire was almost out, but until the crew had a fuller assessment of the damage, there was no point wasting effort on busywork.  Yarec grabbed a chair beside the dishwasher and joined the others in silence.

Rolandson and his assistants got the flames extinguished, but the engine room was a smokey, wet mess.  Captain Andersen ambled back up the the galley and heard all the crew’s reports.  Yarec told the captain about the activity in the water line and the falling pressure, and Andersen showed immediate concern.  He called the assistant engineer up to have a look, and the man reported back quickly, confirming what Yarec had seen.

In fact, the situation had grown significantly worse.  The pressure gauge was still falling.  There must have been a leak somewhere, but there was no way they were going to find it with the power out.  The captain and senior crew conferred briefly and then returned to the bottom deck, hoping to get the power back on before anything else went wrong.

Then it was only a short while before the potable water gave out.  The crew had scrounged up enough battery-powered lighting to make getting around below deck straightforward, but they were hot and thirsty.  To drink they had only a couple jugs of stale water—the last drips collected from the tap—alongside several casks of ethanol.  The sailors, parched and becalmed, emptied the hydro quickly—far too quickly—then started with the alcohol.

The crewmen were not joyous drunks.  They grew surly and spiteful.  Yarec sensed bloodshot eyes trained on him as he got up and paced the galley.  He was the outsider, new on this voyage.  He had been responsible for checking the water system.  At first, some of the men averted their gazes when Yarec reached the end of the linoleum and turned around to face them.  However, as the long minutes passed, there was no let-up in the disorderly banging coming from the engine room below.  The crewmen left stranded in the galley seemed to twitch with the noises, and their leering eyes darkened.

One of the regular crewmen started playing with his knife.  With an ominously casual left-handed flip, he bounced the blade open; the small spring that was supposed to hold it closed in the owner’s pocket had been worn out of shape, broken, or removed.  The galley mate ran his fat calloused thumb along the knife’s undulating edge, then flicked the weapon closed again.

Open.  Closed.  Open.  The blade, lovingly polished to a mirror-like sheen, moved back and forth.  Yarec continued his pacing, and his plodding footsteps seemed to match the light snick of the cook’s knife.

“Gonna get some air,” Yarec said and headed out into the hall.  As soon as he passed around a corner, he heard someone else’s footsteps back in the galley.  Yarec heard three quick steps; then they were drowned out by another barrage of activity from the engine room.

Damn.  Yarec never panicked, but if he ever felt that a situation had turned against him, he would try to get out quick.  The crew did not like him.  They blamed him.  Meanwhile, darkness, booze, and thirst were making them stupid.  The ocean was warm, and the coastline had been in sight at nightfall, before the engines had died.  Time to go.

He darted to the door of his cabin.  His essential gear was waiting at his berth, in a waterproof micro-woven zipper bag he had bought before the ship put out to sea.  Yarec whipped it up onto his back, then loped back to the stairs.  He ascended to the deck.  The lights from the bridge were dead, and only a scrawny bit of moon, crisscrossed as it was by wispy bands of cloud, illuminated the scene.

Below deck, he had become acclimated to the ship’s constant pitching, which was more intense now that they were adrift.  But standing on deck, exposed to the sky, the rocking was too obvious to ignore.  The cranes and communications masts looked this ghostly swaying trees, silhouetted against the dim clouds.  Yarec looked down over the taffrail.  The water was just chaotic darkness.  He could smell the salt and hear the loud sloshing of the waves against the hull, but his leap from the rail was still a leap into the unknown.

He hit the water, and for a moment it felt cold.  His skin was sensitive, but it quickly adapted.  The tropical air had been replaced by tropical water.  He was not going to get hypothermia swimming here.  He just had to find his way to land, in the dark.

Yarec had taken a compass reading and noted the position of the moon before he jumped.  That was all he had to navigate with; it would have to be enough.  What Yarec could see of the horizon, as he treaded water a hundred meters from the hull of the Threepenny Queen, looked equally black in all directions.  He picked out the direction that ought to be east and started paddling, with all the tastes of the tropical sea splashing against his face.

It seemed like the last time he had had a really arduous swim was escaping from the biological weapons refinery in Sankirk.  The water was warmer here, and even muscle fibers that had to stretch unnaturally around pieces of armored endoskeleton were not in danger of cramping up.  However, the ocean was still choppy, and he seemed to get a mouthful of dirty water every time he came up for a breath.  It tasted like salt, vinegar, and raw shrimp.  Yarec started keeping count of how many times he had breathed, as a way of judging how far he had made it, but he lost count somewhere in the low thousands.

He was too tired to keep track of his progress.  He was no longer even sure that he was headed in the right direction.  It was difficult to maintain a fixed heading with no way to make corrections if his orientation began to drift.  The only things that ever passed close enough to be seen were more jellyfish, but they did not sting him.  As if sensing that Yarec was too large and tough to be a suitable prey, the just let him sweep past.  Yarec wondered, as if he were lost in a fantastical dream, whether the cloning practitioners could have made him immune to the jellies’ venom.  Then he choked on another sickening mouthful of water and tried to paddle faster.

Over time, his stroke, which had begun as a proper crawl, was deteriorating in the direction of a dog paddle.  Whenever he noticed the decay, he tried to correct it, but he was just getting too tired.  Then his clawing fingers scraped against a sandy bed.  He paddled harder.  Then he dug his knuckles into the sandbar and pulled himself forward.  The high waves were cresting and breaking around him, and he realized that everything smelled different.  There were wood and other smells in the air.

Yarec lurched up the bank and collapsed on his side.  The waves were still splashing over his legs, but his head was free, and he could breathe uninterrupted.  Training reminded him to look around, gauge whether his location was safe.  Now that he was out of the water, he had the time to see everything around him.  In the minimal gray light, Yarec could see the damp sand by the waterline and dry dunes farther inland.  Scrubby bushes, with long green leaves and a few withered old flowers grew in clumps.  After Yarec had lain there, panting and exposed, for several minutes, he pulled himself up and crawled under the nearest bush.  As soon as he was reasonably confident that his shoes were curled up out of sight, he let his eyes fall closed, and he was asleep.

After that, it took less than an hour to reach the shores of Muscle Bay.  In the port town of Beechmont, Yarec rented a storage unit large enough to hold the car.  He paid for two years, which he thought ought to be more than sufficient.  If two years passed and he had not come back to pick up the vehicle, he could make an extension payment electronically.  More likely, after that amount of time no one—neither Yarec, nor the director of the motor pool at the Kruppeen Engineering Center—would still care what had happened to the little car, and it would be auctioned off for a fraction of already limited value.

With all his belongings in hand, Yarec strolled down to the quayside.  There was a shack by the docks, selling various flash-fried scraps of sea life.  The dock workers lined up to receive their lunches, wrapped in orange sheets of wax paper.  Yarec thought about eating again, but the thinly battered strips of whitefish and seaweed did not look particularly appetizing.  He walked on past, mingling with the sailors coming to and from the boats.

He needed to find a vessel that would take him south.  That ruled out the fishing boats that dominated the fleet.  The fishing vessels served a crucial purpose, providing valuable protein for the local population.  They sailed out for three or four weeks at a time, to where the water was deep and fish still relatively plentiful.  Some of them brought their entire catches back here to the harbor, to where the local robber baron owned a huge processing plant situated on sharp promontory just north of the bay.  The whole town of Beechmont was part of the owner’s fief, and the entire economy revolved around cleaning, preserving, packaging, and shipping seafood.

He asked around, and got directions to the quay where the Three Penny Queen was berthed.  On board, he met Captain Farnabazus Andersen.  The captain was a tall man, although he walked with a pronounced stoop—the product of many years ducking through short portals below decks.  Yarec found him in the hold, leaning back in a chair and studying the latest weather forecasts.  He was wearing a thick black coat, which was a size too small and certainly too thick for the prevailing weather.  He looked quite old, with wispy white locks stuck against his forehead, but as he moved, Yarec could see that he retained much of the spryness of youth.  It looked like there was a hint of arthritis in his left shoulder; as he reached for the half-unwrapped pastry sitting on the arm of the chair, the movement of his upper arm was a bit jerky and tentative; but otherwise, he was fast and fluid, especially as he stood up to meet the stranger he saw approaching.

“What do you want?” Andersen demanded.  His voice was thin and reedy.

“My name’s Linc Dan Fuller.  I want to hitch a ride on your boat,” Yarec said.  “I can work.  I’ve done forty-four—no, forty-six—months at sea.”

“I don’t hire people right off the pier,” the captain said.  “The last time I did that, the damn idiot just couldn’t take it.  A couple months out, he just flipped.  He tried to jump over the side, and we had to keep him locked up for the rest of the trip.  I don’t need any more ass aches like that.”

“Did he have experience?” Yarec persisted.  “I told you, I’ve got four years working on freighters and sea barges.”

“Wouldn’t know that from the way you’re dressed,” the captain muttered.  It was a fair observation, Yarec realized, but he thought he could turn it to his advantage.

“I may not be dressed like a seaman, but I certainly look like somebody who knows how to work,” Yarec said.  His waterproof pants and shirt were still streaked with silt from the Little Snail River, and his boots were worn, with the light scuffs and evenly smoothed treads of an experienced hiker.  “I’ve been busy with other work on dry land, but I haven’t forgotten how to handle a loading crane.”

Yarec was not sure what else to put forward, to induce the captain to take him on.  “No pay,” he ventured, “just food and dry quarters.  I’ll be an extra pair of arms until I get to my destination, then you won’t see any more of me.”

“No pay?”  The captain finally sounded interested.  He probably thought he was getting a good deal, now that he understood Yarec was desperate.

Yarec nodded.  “No pay.”

“Can you weld?”

“Simple stuff,” Yarec said with another nod.

“You’re not picky about rations?  We eat whatever is cheap and local on this ship.  It saves money.”

Given the food Yarec had lived on during his previous stints at sea, Andersen’s parsimony was probably not even going to be noticeable.  “I will eat pretty much anything, so long as the human stomach can digest it,” Yarec said.

The captain cocked his head to one side, as if sizing Yarec up from a slightly different angle might make all the difference.  There was silence, except for the rustle of water alongside the boat and the echoing hum of the forklift somewhere near the other end of the hold.  Then Captain Andersen sat back down again and waved Yarec away.  “Fine,” he said.  “Go find Coonie, and tell him to give you a bunk.”

Yarec complied.  “Welcome aboard,” the captain called after Yarec,  “But pay or no pay, I’m going to work you hard.”

After one more day at the dock, the Three Penny Queen shipped out.  The next port of call was supposed to be another two days south, but a squall delayed the ship half a day.  They sailed in late, sold and bought a few goods, and were on their way before any local authorities could look too closely at what else the ship was carrying.  That was typical of Captain Andersen’s trading strategy, although not all the planned deliveries went so smoothly.

Since the capture of Station Westerly, there had been intensifying violence up and down the coast.  The instability would probably subside within a few months, but at that point it was still getting worse.  A water war had broken out between two neighboring city-states, and ravagers were combing the countryside for whatever loot they could carry away.  For a tramp freighter, hard times meant plenty of business, but one of the semi-autonomous port towns where Captain Andersen had planned to stop had been completely destroyed by the time the ship got there.  The crew heard the news over the radio two days before they were supposed to deliver their bags of guns and bullets, and when the ship reached the cape where the town had been located, they could only cruise on past.  Black smoke was billowing from the remains of the communal fuel depot.  Much of the fuel had been looted, siphoned away in armored tanker wagons; but whatever extra would not fit, the sacking army had set ablaze.  There would be more buyers farther south, the captain said, although no one paid as well for guns as people on the verge of being wiped out.