Authors: Tom D Wright
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Post-Apocalyptic
The morning passes, and when the wind picks up again, the fog dissipates, but the cloud layer remains above us, and the deck is drenched in a steady but light rain. Danae comes up on deck and has another bout of sea sickness, then complains about the cold.
Captain Hanford points out that we have a small wood stove in our cabin, and we retreat to our quarters. The small iron stove is bolted to the deck beneath the hammock. After I get it lit, I pull a worn deck of cards out of my pack.
“I’m impressed,” Danae says. “I’ve seen cards back home, owned by the town nobles. But they keep them for games they play among themselves.”
“So you’ve never played any card games?” I ask.
She shakes her head, and I spend a few minutes showing her the deck and explaining the suits. Then I teach her how to play Casino. It is a simple, easy-to-learn game that plays well with two people. During the first few hands, she stumbles through while I explain the strategy, but by the fourth game she has picked it up, and beats me without any assistance.
She is undeniably a quick study; I suspect her potential has been wasted in that isolated community, but this is a world full of wasted potential.
We chat between hands. She has gotten her sea legs enough now that she can keep her supper down. After eating, we resume play, and she tells me a few stories from her childhood, including one about the time she stole a pie from a neighbor and got sick from eating it in one sitting. Another time, she was seven years old and stuck her finger in a tidal pool, only to have a crab latch onto it.
“So what is the most unforgettable experience from your childhood?” I ask, as I finish shuffling and deal some cards.
Danae pauses, and folds the hand I dealt her as she thinks for a moment. Then she softly answers, “It was one afternoon, when my parents and I went on a picnic. It was late spring, and it was my mother’s birthday. Papa wanted to surprise her, so he borrowed a horse and wagon and took us on a ride outside of town. We went up and up, to the top of a high hill that looked out over the river, all the way to the ocean. We had just finished lunch, and Mom told us that she was going to have another baby. Even Papa didn’t know, but we were all so happy. Anyway, my mother walked over to some nearby bushes to go potty, and then she was attacked by a cougar. I still remember her screams,” Danae says as she shudders.
“Papa had an old gun at that time, when he still had bullets, and he tried to save her. He shot the cougar three times before it jumped on him. I screamed and screamed while he stabbed it until it died. Mom was already dead, and Papa was very badly hurt. What I remember, more than anything else, is all the blood. There was blood everywhere.”
“It’s not normal for a mountain lion to attack a group of adults like that,” I say.
“Papa barely made it into the wagon before he passed out. I had to drive him back to town to get help. When he woke up the next day, he said the animal had rabies. You know, that thing that makes them go crazy.”
“That’s always fatal. Why didn’t your father die?”
“He had some medicine that he had hidden away just for something like this. Anyway, that was the day my childhood ended. It was still a few years before I became a woman, but after that day, I wasn’t a child anymore.”
“After such a bad experience with a big cat, I’m surprised you chose to have tigers tattooed on your arms.”
Danae looks at me with eyes that narrow momentarily, hard and cold as granite. “I did it to remind me every day that I refuse to surrender to anything. So, what was the turning point in your life?”
Danae’s words hit me like a steel beam across my forehead. I do not even respond; I simply lay my cards down, stand up and walk out of the cabin. When I get up on deck, the rain has dissipated, replaced by a chill, brisk wind that bites through my clothing. But the sting is nothing like the pain of the moment that Danae dredged up.
The turning point in my life occurred over thirty years ago, but it remains etched in my memory.
It was bad enough that I had to watch my friends die, but I can never forget those thirty-five minutes as I descended to Earth, knowing I had lost everything I cared about.
The small space lifeboat bounced and shook as the shockwave of the descent buffeted it. I steered it the best I could toward an obscure military outpost in the South Pacific, which had a landing strip designated for emergency landings. The fact that it had somehow escaped the nuclear free-for-all that followed the Crash was a major plus.
But while the rational part of my brain was focused on surviving the landing, the rest of me knew the implications of what was happening. My home and wife were on the other side of a gulf more impassable to me than the depths of Hades. Every minute of that fall took me further and further into a gravity well where I would inevitably die, one endless day at a time.
Since then, I have kept that moment safely stored away deep in my emotional lockbox.
By the time I return to our cabin, Danae has snuffed out the lamp. I slip into my hammock. I start counting the number of times my hammock swings, and I fade out somewhere between eight and ten.
* * *
Just as Captain Hanford promised, we sail into Entiak early the next morning. In the dawn light, Danae and I stride down the gangway onto the waterfront. Not a moment too soon. It is time for me to fulfill my promise to Doc, and start Danae on a new life. Then she can find the future she is looking for—and possibly a real husband, if she wants one—while I get back to the Archives.
And with any luck, back to Sarah.
Entiak straddles a small river that feeds into a well-protected inlet off the Pacific, in a location that has already emerged as a strategic center for trade. The growing community is much larger than Port Sadelow; I expect that one day, it will be the capital of this region. It is still barely more than a small city now, but it has that feel of gravitas, and more people seem to bustle just along the waterfront here than there were in all of Port Sadelow. The town even has a small constabulary.
Thank God none of them wear black capes.
As soon as we set foot on solid ground again, Danae is eager to look for her uncle, but my first priority is to connect with my Archives contact, if he is already here. There is no question that I will accompany Danae long enough to make sure she gets settled in her new home. I owe that much to Doc. But I am not going to lug around a hundred pounds of Intellinet tech while doing so, even for my pretend wife.
According to the mission plan I put together back at the Archives, if for any reason I do not maintain contact with my sat phone, the first pickup attempt will be a fishing boat here in Entiak. We are to rendezvous in the Green Mermaid tavern, which I chose mainly because it is at the opposite end of the waterfront from the fish market—or more specifically, the market’s odor. I do not know who is assigned to this pickup, but I hope he got here a few days early.
A wide cobblestone road runs along the Entiak harbor front, where the Lady of the Mist is tied up. A steady flow of people and carts moves back and forth. I have been here a few times, so I know where our destination is.
I lead Danae along the waterfront for several blocks, until we reach a two-story building that has a large wooden cutout of a mermaid dangling from a single chain above the door, the faded green sign twisting in the light breeze. The owner still has not replaced its other chain; it was broken the last time I was here.
Danae draws a few appreciative hoots when we step through the tavern door, and I scan the breakfast crowd for a familiar face. There, at a table in the corner by the fireplace, sits a small, wiry figure with more rings in his left ear than most fishing boats have hooks. Few sights could be more welcome right now than my friend, Brannock.
I stride across the pub so I can slap my associate on the back, and he rises to give me an embrace, along with a knowing wink, when he notes Danae following behind me.
Setting my pack and staff down, I pull a couple of chairs over to his table and tell Danae, “This is my friend, Brannock. He’s the one I hoped to find here.”
As she takes a seat, Danae holds out her hand with a mischievous grin. “Pleased to meet you, Brannock. I’m Danae, K’Marr’s wife.”
My friend gapes as he shoots me a quick look of surprise mixed with concern, but does not miss a beat. He leans forward as he pulls her hand to his lips for a quick kiss. “Good for you, K’Marr. It’s about time you retrieved something worth keeping!”
“Don’t rush to make any toasts,” I retort, sharply enough to freeze the smile on his face. “It’s not a real marriage.”
“I’ll say,” Danae pouts, as she crosses her arms and leans back in her chair. “He beats me every night, and there’s no room for me in his bed because of all the boys.”
Brannock rocks in his chair and throws his head back, laughing. Danae does not realize that Brannock would climb into my bed eagerly, if he and I had that kind of friendship. I explain our traveling arrangement to him. For some reason, he finds it far more humorous than I do. Then his face takes on a serious expression.
“So, where is Wally?” he asks me. “Don’t take this personally, Danae, but I expected K’Marr to have a much uglier traveling companion.”
“He was taken out by a techbot,” I reply. There is not much else to say.
“Shit.” Brannock stares into his drink for a long minute. “I figured something happened when we hadn’t heard from either of you, but still… damn. So no one has told Sheila?”
“I’ll tell her when we get back. Just don’t say anything in your communications until then, okay? I don’t want her to find out from a dispatch.”
Brannock nods his agreement. “So, did you find it? Is it really what we thought it was?”
I nudge the pack at my feet and answer with a hushed voice. “Right here. Wally was right about one thing: I didn’t believe it was possible, but it definitely was one of Intellinet’s space pods, and the craft was reasonably intact. The damn boat was packed with chips and parts, so it must have been on a supply run to the Ark when it crashed, for some reason. I grabbed what looked like the drive and some control systems. Hopefully Prof can make some sense of it. If nothing else, it should keep him occupied for a good long time.”
My friend glances down at the pack, and I see the glint of curiosity in his eyes.
“Not here,” I chide. “Is your boat far from here? I need to help Danae take care of some business, and I’d rather not haul this thing around with me.”
Brannock nods as he takes a final swig of what looks like some sort of malt substitute for coffee. He slides his chair back as I grab my pack, and we head out to the street.
A chill wind brings sporadic gusts of rain from the north, so it looks like Captain Hanford just beat the weather into port. My chivalrous side comes out as I drape my duster over Danae’s shoulders. The hem drags on the ground, but the coat will keep her dry.
Brannock leads us to a small marina, where a motley assortment of fishing boats bobs on the agitated water. The single-masted vessel he leads us to appears miniscule compared to the Lady of the Mist, but I know it is sturdier than it looks, and there is no seaman in the world I would rather have my life depend on than Brannock. He could sail this thing across the entire Pacific single-handed. I know, because he did it once in a similar boat.
At the gunwale, he tells Danae that Archives rules prohibit her coming aboard, so she has to stay on the dock. I know there is no such rule, but I just give her an apologetic shrug and promise to be quick. Then I hop aboard, and follow Brannock down into the cabin.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he hisses at me, while I stash the generator pack under a seat, along with my walking stick. “K’Marr, you know we can’t take her back with us! Nobody from the outside comes into the Archives. Nobody.”
“Don’t worry, I promised her father that I’d look after her, as he was dying. That’s all this is. I just have to help her get settled here and then I’m done with her. Really, we’re just friends.”
Brannock frowns as he shakes his head, and he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Is that what you’re telling yourself? I see the way you look at her, when she isn’t watching. No good will come of this. You’re a Retrieval Archivist, and a damn great one.”
Brannock is one of my best friends—actually, one of my only friends. But he has no idea what the hell he is talking about, here. “Give it a break, alright? I’m not in the mood. Just tell me when the weather is going to turn. I want to get that woman settled, so do you think we can leave this evening?” Once our rendezvous with the sub is out of the way and the generator is safely on its way back to the Archives, I can return to Entiak to take care of my unfinished business.
“This looks like a weak front,” he replies. “It’ll blow through by this afternoon. And we’re fine on supplies, so yeah, we should be able to head out by then.”
“Good. Be ready to leave as soon as I get back.”
“I’ll be ready before you are, K’Marr. Listen, I love you like a brother and I don’t want you to get hurt. Just make it quick and don’t look back. When you get here we’ll break into that vintage Scotch you found for me, okay?”
I grab a cloak from the boat cabin and give him a thumbs-up sign before I climb the steps to the deck and rejoin Danae on the dock. She has her back to the wind, and her arms tightly wrapped around herself. After I take my pack from her, I cover her with the cloak so I can have my duster back, and we waste no time getting off the pier.
The first order of business is to get out of the weather and make a plan. I do not need to solve all her problems; I just have to make sure that Danae is securely settled somewhere. Then I will have fulfilled my oath to Doc.
We need somewhere to make a plan, but I would rather not return to the tavern where I met Brannock. Not that I have any reason to be suspicious, but I am just naturally paranoid on retrievals. We walk past it, and a block further down, we come to The Smugglers’ Cove. When I open the door to glance inside, I see curtains dangling from window frames on one side, and a broken candle chandelier sitting on the floor in one corner. The place looks somewhat run-down, but it is still half-full of customers, so I take the activity as a good sign and head on in.
We seat ourselves in a small booth. The back of my seat wobbles, but at least the wall has hooks on it, so I can hang up my duster and hat. We are barely settled when a haggard elderly woman comes over and introduces herself as the owner, Marjoram. The breakfast options are limited to combinations of eggs and meat, so I order the Captain’s Breakfast, and Danae orders the First Mate.
As the woman walks away, I lean toward Danae. “So, we need to find your uncle. What do you know about him?”
“K’Marr, I appreciate that you feel you owe something to my father, but we don’t have to do this,” Danae says, crossing her arms and sitting back in her seat. The irritated look on her face is something I am not used to seeing from her.
“Huh, do what?”
“This,” she says as she leans forward and waves at the town around us. “I’m a grown woman, and I can take care of myself. You got me away from Port Sadelow and the Disciples, and I thank you for that. But I’ll find Uncle Franz, he’ll help me find a place to live and I’ll be fine. Really. You and your friend should just go on back to… wherever you came from.”
I let out a long sigh and run my hand through my hair. It does not have to be this difficult. “Danae, I promised your father that I would make sure you are okay. Not you, him. And I keep my promises. That means I don’t just abandon you in a strange town.”
“Really? Is that all it is? Nothing more than a deathbed commitment?” she asks, her voice sharp and brittle. Danae’s intense eyes do not waver from mine when the old woman brings our plates and sets them in front of us wordlessly, before she retreats from the tension-filled table.
“What more do you want from me? Isn’t that enough?” I cannot help feeling that I am missing something here, but damned if I know what it is, let alone have time for it.
Danae stares for a few more moments, then her eyes look down with moist resignation as she slowly picks up her fork and pokes at her breakfast. Her voice is choked with emotion as she replies, “I guess that’s all it needs to be.”
“Besides,” I add, picking up my fork and trying to lighten things up. “What kind of husband would I be, if I didn’t make sure my wife had a roof over her head before heading out to sea?”
“Not a very good one, I guess,” she replies, sadness dripping off her words. “Okay. Let’s find my uncle, and then you can consider yourself officially divorced.”
She gives me a brief, thin smile and we eat our breakfast in silence, aside from utensils scraping the plates. I am trying hard to be a damn good friend, so I have no idea what more she wants. Awkward moments like this remind me why I prefer the solitary life of retrievals. It is so much simpler.
“He kept in touch with Papa through letters on a regular basis, but all I really remember about Uncle Franz is that he’s a trader,” Danae finally says, after she finishes her food. “One time Papa brought me to visit. I remember a big house filled with all sorts of things he picked up on his travels. He’s kind of like you, I suppose.”
“Do you recall where he lived?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “It was long ago and I was quite young. Right after my mother died, Papa was going to leave me with Uncle. He said I would have a better life here, but I begged and pleaded until Papa finally brought me back home with him.”
The server comes by to pick up our empty plates, and I turn to the elderly woman.
“I just made landfall this morning,” I tell her. “I have some goods to trade, but this is my first time here. Where can I find the merchant district?”
“That’s easy,” Marjoram replies. “When you go out, just continue up this street until you get to the fountain. Turn right and go a few blocks. When you reach a small square, you’re there.”
I pay for our meal with a silver coin that Marjoram finds acceptable. When we exit the tavern, I follow her directions. Unlike Port Sadelow, the main streets of the original town are paved with actual asphalt, which is starting to crack and split in random lines of grass and weeds.
Newer, cobblestone streets were laid down as the town grew with refugees during the Demon Days. Those lucky survivors made it through the mountains, fleeing nomadic hordes ravaging much of the North American plains, like migrating plagues of locusts. Even those roaming bands knew enough to avoid the radioactive expanses where major cities once stood.
When we enter the square, Danae pauses and swivels slowly, examining both the plaza and her memories. “There,” she says, pointing to a small shop in the far corner, and we make our way past stalls of food vendors that are set up facing shops.
Others hawk all sorts of goods, ranging from cloth and metal ware to tools and weapons. There is even a small bookshop, where I recall making several prized acquisitions almost a decade ago. It has been quite a while since I was last here; the town has grown a lot more than I expected.
Another time, I could easily spend a week or two here, ferreting out treasures. After all, that is what I do. But not now, so I do not let myself get distracted as we walk up to a small shop with a sign on the outside which reads ‘Kaufstetter’s Essences.’
Pushing the door open, we enter a cornucopia of herbal scents. A counter divides the small shop. The front half is lined with shelves holding jars and urns full of herbs and various types of spices. Behind the counter are several rows of cases displaying a wide assortment of oils, creams and powders.