By Mitchell Edgeworth | January, 2016
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The Wayfarer is dying. Debaecker can feel her agony in his own flesh. She groans in dumb animal pain, beached on this desolate shore. He has tried coaxing her back out to sea but she is deaf to his whispers, wracked with a poison he cannot begin to comprehend. It has been five days now. The Wayfarer is going nowhere. Salvation must come from outside.
Debaecker spends most of his time in the command chamber. With the Wayfarer dying the navlight is dormant, and he is reduced to using paper maps. He studies them late into the night, feeling the tired throb of the ship's heart beneath his bare feet. After the chaos of the previous week, the storm and the sickness and the beaching, the navigator Tanaka confesses he has lost their position. They were somewhere south of Novyugo, and have surely run aground there, but could be anywhere in the two thousand kilometres of wasteland between Chanu's Grant and Israelite Bay. Debaecker can go outside in the rain and the wind and the upflung water from the crashing waves below, and stare out at a smudged grey shoreline that stretches from horizon to horizon, but he cannot place it on a map. It frightens him, this absence of an official position.
"Novyugo is mostly desert," Tanaka says, his face emblazoned by the glow of the firebug lantern. "Nobody will find us here. Nobody is coming for us."
"I know," Debaecker says. But he has said that night after night. "I know."
Patago, the ship's surgeon, warns him that the Wayfarer cannot survive much longer. His attempts to trace and identify the poison have been fruitless; his theories range from extraterrestrial ocean spores to a sabotage attempt by the Commonwealth. "We need experts," he says. "A proper recovery team, from the Flotilla. I cannot cure her alone."
You cannot cure her at all, Debaecker thinks. He has been bonded to the Wayfarer for nearly thirty years. He knows they are both finished.
It is De Groot, the ship's quartermaster, who finally convinces him. "The Wayfarer may die," he says. "But that doesn't mean we have to." It does, of course, mean Debaecker has to. But De Groot knows Debaecker must be thinking about Parvo, his fifteen-year old nephew, the fifth and final member of the crew. Parvo has a long and full life ahead of him still, if he can escape this place.
Debaecker studies the maps carefully for several days before sending out the three officers: Patago, Tanaka, De Groot. The Wayfarer's lifeboat is not a bioship but a craft of rubber and fibreglass with a water-powered motor. A grim prospect, to take to the southern seas in such a tiny vessel, but they have no choice. Like many officers on the bioships of the Flotilla the three of them were press-ganged from the untouchable castes, long ago slavebonded to the Wayfarer. They know as well as he does that circumstances must be truly dire for him to release them from their covenant.
"Parvo should come with us," De Groot says uneasily.
Debaecker will not hear of it. "How far to the Flotilla? To the shipping lanes, even? Five hundred kilometres in a lifeboat in autumn. I will not risk it."
"The Wayfarer may die before we return."
"Parvo will not. He can live off the rations. I will not ask him to do what I expect of men."
"Perhaps we shouldn't go to the Flotilla at all," Patago says. "We could follow the coast, find a town..."
"This is Novyugo," Debaecker reminds him. "There may not be another human being for thousands of kilometres. No. Go to the Flotilla, and return with help."
The officers are uneasy. It is a hard order, Debaecker must admit. He would go himself but he is bonded to the Wayfarer and cannot leave her. He gives them the charts and marks out a route as best he can. But of course they are unsure of their position, and without a clear sky they cannot navigate by the stars. The odds of their mission succeeding are bleak. Yet even as they avert their eyes he can see the expression of survivors' guilt. As they board the boat they do not shake his hand or salute.
The lifeboat is winched down into the turgid sea. The motor hums to life and the boat picks its way across the choppy waves, Tanaka at the tiller, already cold and wet. Before long the Wayfarer's three officers have vanished, and it is just Debaecker and the boy.
Debaecker still thinks of him as a boy, though he is now fifteen years old - shoulders broadening, hair on his upper lip. Parvo is his nephew and ward, his parents long dead, and the boy maintains a diligent faith in his uncle which Debaecker has always found flattering. Now it is heartbreaking. "When will they come back?" he asks.
Debaecker watches them motoring away, growing smaller, and thinks of storms and rogue waves and the darker things which lurk below the water. "I don't know," he says. But he does.
Debaecker cannot sleep. He has withdrawn from as much of the bond as he can while keeping the Wayfarer alive, but her crippling pain still tugs at his dreams. Her spores have withered and shrivelled so he is hungry, too. Parvo slumbers peacefully beside him in a dormitory that now feels very empty without the other men. The captain abandons his bed and moves aimlessly about the ship.
Nearly thirty years since they were bonded. Thirty years across the oceans together, weathering storms and wars and piracy. Wedded to the Wayfarer, he might have lived to be one hundred. He never thought the ship would die first.
The poisoning is inexplicable. The sea is full of unfriendly factions, with powers the Flotilla cannot understand, but never before has he heard of a bioship being poisoned. The implications disturb him. But he is not a detective or a surgeon. The Wayfarer is beached and dying. His job is to find help, not to solve a mystery.
Sometimes at night, when the rain eases, Debaecker goes onto the deck. He climbs out onto the Wayfarer's broad shoulders and back, wrapped in his sealskin coat, and lies amongst her grizzled fur to stare at the sky. It remains grey and overcast, but through this dismal glaucoma he can just make out the glow of the moon and the buzzing lights of the Pantheon's century-long blockade. When he was a boy there had still been battles in orbit sometimes, flickering trails of missiles and silent, bright explosions, but the insurgency is long over and the Pantheon now reigns unchallenged. The human race has not left the Earth for more than fifty years. Presumably it never will again.
Debaecker smokes the last of his tobacco and feels the Wayfarer whimper beneath him. It has been thirteen days since the beaching and five days since the officers left in the lifeboat. He wonders what to do with the boy.
The last of the dried rations. The remaining maps. Emergency flares. A fishing knife. A survival suit. Parvo watches as his uncle lays these things out for him on the table on the bridge.
"Don't argue," Debaecker says, though he knows the boy would never dream of doing so. "Something might have happened to the others. I don't like Novyugo any more than you do, but we have no choice. I cannot leave the Wayfarer. You must follow the coast and find help." He taps a point on the map. "Esperance. Here. An ancient city. Past its glory days. A dangerous place, maybe - be careful. Find an African or a Free Trader and get back to the Flotilla. Find help for us."
Debaecker is decaying. He is sixty years old and he can feel the Wayfarer's own agonies seeping into his soul, the poison spreading through his skin. He looks across the table at his nephew's young eyes, unsullied skin, uncertain expression. "Can you do this for me, Parvo?"
"Yes," Parvo says. "Yes, captain."
Debaecker takes him up onto deck, lowers him down the Wayfarer's flank, watches him land firmly with his knees bent to absorb the impact amidst the foaming surf. Parvo releases the filament and sloshes up through the waves onto shore, trudging up the wet sand, waving back at his uncle. Debaecker watches him go and wonders if Parvo thinks he is a teenage hero, the last great hope of the ship on a rescue mission, or if he is old enough to understand his uncle is giving him a slim chance of survival while he himself sinks into death. He wishes he had known the boy better.
The land is flat, the tides are great, the sea is shallow. It takes Parvo some time to move up the beach, to reach a place where the water no longer swirls around his ankles with every wave. The sky is a sullen grey and it is drizzling with rain but the survival suit, a body-hugging blend spawned by the Wayfarer's own skin, keeps him warm and dry. He treks along the beach for some time before stopping and looking back at the ship. He has never seen her from afar before, only in the tight, clustered docks of the Flotilla, girt by hundreds of grooming gantries. For the first time he is struck by her size. In the pre-dusk drizzle she is a blurry and indistinct shape, a mountain rising from the tidal flats, one huge arm curled up beneath her and another splayed out across the beach, as though reaching for land. The curving dorsal fin, the broken tail, the salt-encrusted fur. At first you might mistake her for a landform, but still she breathes, ever so slightly, her back rising and falling. From so far away she seems like a fragile thing, cast up out of the ocean onto this fatal shore. She may be big, but the continent is bigger still.
He cannot confront the fact directly, but below the surface of his thoughts Parvo knows that the Wayfarer is going to die, his home for the past four years, his uncle's living ship which plied the trade lines radiating from the Flotilla like a spiderweb: Christ's Church, Kanyakumari, Lock's Gateway, McMurdo, the City of Angels. He will never again fall asleep in his nook with the breath of the Wayfarer humming through the walls and the sound of Patago's snoring in his ears, never bring a flask of coffee to Tanaka on night watch, never again stand on the Wayfarer's shoulders as her arms lift cargo pods into her gullet while De Groot stands atop her head and bellows instructions to the port labourers below. As he walks up the beach he begins to cry.
On the first night Parvo makes camp some way into the sand dunes, wary of how far the tide might rise. He can see the country stretching away to the north, a flat and empty wasteland studded with saltbush. He hears alien creatures shrieking in the distance. He lights a fire from driftwood and crinkled saltbush stems, a gnarled and pitiful thing which spits weak yellow flames into the darkness. Will it repel or attract the creatures of the desert? He sits awake most of the night with the fishing knife in hand, and hears much but sees nothing. The next day he keeps walking west along the coast, with aching bones and a foggy head from fatigue.
His rations do not last long. On the third day he comes across a kangaroo with an injured leg, and manages to chase it down and kill it with the knife. He has seen kangaroos only in storybooks, hypothetical creatures in the same category as unicorns and fairies. This starving wretch is a far sight from the plump, friendly creatures of his imagination. He skins and eats it but something in the meat makes him nauseous and he vomits most of it up again.
On the fourth day he hears wild dogs howling, and sees them approaching him across the scrubland, running unpredictably, snapping at each other, circling, drawing ever closer. He waits until they are close enough and then lights a flare. The dogs pull up short, wary and uncertain, and when he hurls the flare at the closest it yelps in pain and scrambles backwards. He is already lighting a second but the dogs have scattered and vanished into the saltbush.
On the fifth day he comes upon a beached whale. Any hope he had of salvaging meat is dashed by the presence of ichabods, crawling across the carcass, slicing and harvesting and chattering to each other in their byzantine language. He knows that ichabods are not dangerous if left alone, but it is one thing to know something and another to do it. He gives them a wide berth but still feels sick with fear. As he skirts the carcass they stop moving, as one. They raise their swivelling eyes towards him and buzz their wings. He has a vision of insectile plagues, of a cloud descending upon him and stripping his flesh to his bone. De Groot claimed to have seen that once, on Rarotonga, after an egg hunter pushed his luck in a breeding ground.
But he is safe. The ichabods do not attack. He moves past and they resume their plunder of the corpse.
Six days. Parvo has moved beyond the feeling of hunger into a strange, unreal nausea. He sits at night with the knife in his hands, listening to distant peregrine screeching. There are worse things than wild dogs in the darkness beyond the campfire.
In fitful bursts of sleep he dreams about De Groot and Tanaka and Patago, and wonders what has happened to them. Two separate groups, a group of three and a group of one, fleeing the dying Wayfarer, searching for succour in hostile landscapes of land and sea. Are they dead yet? He dreams of towering Antarctic waves, drenching rain, terrifying storms. A battered lifeboat drifting through a landscape of iceberg peaks, balanced upon their own reflections in a frigid southern sea.
On the eighth day he reaches the port. The sea level has shrunk from its old mark, after the Pantheon sucked teralitres of water from the world's oceans. The ancient city of Esperance was once a harbour, but now sits some fifty kilometres from the shore. A beacon line connects the port city of Gavygrad with the old town of Esperance, a flashing row of red pylons running arrow-straight through the wasteland. Parvo stumbles towards the port half-starved and crazy with relief. He cannot stop laughing.
Gavygrad is a strange and alien city, even for a boy who spent his youth travelling across the oceans. Thousands of impossibly thin spires rise into the drizzling clouds. A dormant Confederacy guardian dominates the city skyline, three hundred metres tall and two hundred years old, armour plating dripping with rust and seagull droppings. Arbutath caravans from Esperance march down the main boulevard, their footsteps sending tremors through the ground. Their musk clings to Parvo's nostrils and makes his nose water. At ground level the gutters are full of rubbish and mud. A dozen alien species beg for alms in the shadows of the towers.
In the Flotilla, if a citizen wants food, they must pay for it. In Novyugo, as it transpires, food is a basic right. Parvo cannot understand the arcane workings of the system which provides this, but he is grateful for it. A human beggar who knows some Tradetalk directs him to a large and bustling public house, where a man behind a security grille gives him a plastic container full of reheated rice and some unidentified meat, and a milky bottle of water.
Parvo takes a seat at the end of a table in the crowded, harshly-lit room, and eats with his hands, shovelling rice and meat into his mouth. First things first: he will eat, he will keep himself alive, and then he will go to the harbour and find a sympathetic captain and work for passage to the Flotilla, and then (he thinks to himself, knowing it to be untrue) he will bring a rescue ship back for the Wayfarer just in time and everything will be all right.
He does not realise at first that sitting at the table across from his own is De Groot, the Wayfarer's quartermaster, whom Parvo had imagined drowned in a dark and turbulent sea. He has a glass of beer in his hand and his arm is around a woman the same age as Parvo. He is drunk, talking and laughing. Parvo walks over to him and De Groot's laughter suddenly stops as he recognises the boy. His expression goes cold.
"What are you doing here?" Parvo asks.
De Groot scowls. "Go away, boy."
"You were supposed to go to the Flotilla. Why are you here? Where are Patago and Tanaka? Have you sent help?"
"I said go away."
Parvo has a horrible sick feeling in his stomach as he begins to comprehend the magnitude of the crew's betrayal. Before he knows what he is doing he has struck De Groot in the face as the man a swig of beer, sending his glass flying, the girl shrieking out, and now De Groot is hitting him back and he is bigger and older and stronger, and Parvo curls up on the floor under the force of his blows until both of them are tossed outside into the streets for causing a disturbance.
Parvo sits at the edge of the gutter with his feet in the mud, wheezing and coughing. His ribcage hurts every time he breathes. The sun went down while he was in the public house, and Gavygrad is lit by ranks of gas lanterns, sending shadows dancing and wavering across the empty streets.
De Groot squats down beside him, clamps a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," he says. "I lost my temper. But you shouldn't have hit me."
Parvo can smell the beer on his breath. He says nothing.
"Take this," De Groot says, shoving a handful of blue and yellow paper at him. "It's called money. What they use here instead of juche. We got it from selling the boat. You can give it to a captain at the docks and he'll take you back to the Flotilla."
Parvo turns his head away.
"Take it!" De Groot hisses, and shoves it into Parvo's breast pocket. He squats there for a moment longer, unsure of what else to say, amidst the smell of dirty water and the eerie glow of the gas lights.
"It was Patago, wasn't it?" Parvo says. "It must have been. To be able to poison the Wayfarer. Was it his idea? Or did you make him do it? Or Tanaka?"
De Groot runs his tongue over his teeth. "Does it matter?"
"I suppose not."
"You'll understand one day," De Groot says, standing up and wrapping his coat tightly against the cold. "We couldn't stay there anymore. You don't understand now, but one day you will. I'm sorry, Parvo." He walks off down the street, disappearing into the evening gloom, and does not look back.
Parvo stares at the mud. He is thinking about the swarm of ichabods writhing across the surface of the dead whale.
After a moment he stands up and sets off after De Groot, his hand in his pocket, grasped around the rubber handle of the fishing knife.