Presidio Point, San Frisco Isles — The sea mists landed gently on my face, tickling my nostrils as I rounded the sedum-lined path. It was an atypically foggy morning at Presidio Point, with only a hint of sun piercing the billowing haze. Behind me, the last towering remnants of the once-mighty citadel broke through the clouds. I heard a growing murmur up ahead as I came closer to the lighthouse. I must not be the only one with the same idea.
And then I saw them: a crowd before me unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. The pier was packed with onlookers, all jostling back and forth along the ropes. People streamed onto the docks like army ants, just to catch a glimpse of it. What “it” was, I wasn’t exactly sure. All I knew was that a giant seafaring vessel was coming in before noon, bringing wealthy traders, craftsmen, and other folk from faraway lands. Quite a few swindlers too, no doubt.
I was mostly just curious. As of yesterday, I’d finally finished a major rigging job over on Sutro Isle for the island master’s security fleet. So I had some time to kill. Master Jin’s a paranoid pain-in-the-ass — and a low-balling cheapskate at that — but I can’t turn down two steady meals a day, plus a private dorm for myself and my sweet. A small ship of my own would be nice someday, but I knew that wasn’t happening anytime soon.
Jin would no doubt flog me if he knew I was here. “Don’t ever think you can get a better deal working for some other master ‘round here,” he’d always say. He was probably right, but I couldn’t help but wonder. Thankfully, he was out sailing to Merced Shores right about now, and wouldn’t be back ‘til nightfall. He’ll never even know I was gone.
The throngs roared as I elbowed my way onto the main walkway. And then I saw it: its soaring masts catching the morning gales as its massive bow sliced through the waves with barreling fury. Well over a dozen windows lined its starboard side just below deck, signaling that this was no ordinary passenger ship. Eventually, the sea colossus slowed, came to port, dropped anchor, and extended a wide ramp down to the pier’s edge.
I kept my distance, waiting patiently for what everyone had come to see. After a few minutes, four security guards emerged, decked out in full-plated armor, each carrying a broadsword and shield. Two-by-two, a parade of men, women, and others followed, some dressed in leather vests and pants, others in elegant earth-toned robes. Almost all of them were adorned with jewels. Around a dozen porters carried chests, burlap sacks, and boxes of varying sizes. These folks expect to make a killing.
With some help from the pier patrol, the security guards cleared a path for the well-heeled visitors, and began escorting them up the embankment to their horse-drawn chariots. Halfway down the line, one man stood out from the rest. Outfitted in sleek deck clothes and a sailor’s cap, he carried himself with a youthful swagger and a confident smile. He scanned the crowd intently as he strode up the walkway toward me. Admittedly, I stood out a bit, being one of the last remaining islanders whose ancestors hail mostly from West Eurasia.
“G’day mate! Where can a sea bloke find some knock-out grog ‘round here?” he asked, pulling on his cap. “Not the new stuff. Those ‘ol brews yous West Islanders are famous for!”
“Are we now?” I asked. I hadn’t heard that one before. The guy’s got good taste though.
“No question.” His smile widened, revealing several golden teeth. “’Course, yous all got a few centuries on us. Where I’m from, so many different folks are brewin’ all sorts of new crap. It’s hard to find anyone who’s perfected the art.” He held out his hand. His palm was weathered and dry. He must already have a couple decades of experience on the high seas.
“Nice grip,” he said. “You’ve done some sailing yourself, matey, am I right?” He looked at me intently now, his smile widening even more.
Maybe I should keep quiet. Word could get back to Jin. So I punted: “Well, I can hold my own at the helm, but not like the guys ‘round here at Presidio. Far more experience than I.”
“Name’s Dredge,” he said, laughing under his breath. “First mate of this fine beaut. Brought her all the way from ‘Ntarctica along the Western shores. And who might you be?”
“Jorel,” I offered, though not my real name, of course. Better safe than sorry.
“Good to meet ya, mate” he said. “Turns out, my crew’s lookin’ for another helmsman. No one too cocky, ‘course. You strike me as a strong, honest fella. We could use a bloke like you.”
Taken aback, I tried to mask my excitement. “Well, I’m just a local rig hand, and well-tended to by my master. My meager skills are being put to good use.” Those words were hard to say. I’m one of the best in these parts, as most sailing folk around here could attest.
“I’m sure all dat’s true,” said Dredge, sizing me up from head to toe. But this time, the smile faded. “And yet, here ya are, wit no master ‘round, sniffin’ out opportunity.”
He had me there. “Well, it’s not often that we see such a magnificent sight pulling into Presidio Harbor,” I said. “If you really want some of that ale, I suggest you make it out to Sailor’s Lair at Land’s End. But hurry. Their stock won’t last past sundown.”
His smile beamed now, his eyes meeting mine with an eerily familiar gaze. “Thanks mate,” he said, patting my shoulder as he darted further up the path to rejoin his entourage.
I’ll admit: I haven’t felt that tempted in a very long time. I’d best be back to meet Yasmin before she starts wondering where I’ve gone off to.
§ § §
She peered at me with scorn and worry as I entered our tiny bungalow. Even with her frowning lips and furrowed brow, Yasmin was still the most beautiful being I’d ever laid eyes upon. Her face bore smooth, golden-brown cheeks, pearly whites in perfect order, and fiery, auburn eyes. Of course, none of that compared to her graceful, yet powerful demeanor, which has held me captive since the moment we met.
“Where’ve you been, love?” she squawked, tying her wavy, silky black hair behind her back.
There was no point in lying. She could see right through me. “Across the sound,” I said. “Up Presidio way. Heard there was a trade ship coming in. Bigger than usual.”
I saw her upper arms tense up and her jaw tighten at that. A reminder of her masculine side. Yasmin, it should be said, is not fully female. She’s a feminine “third,” as most call them in these parts. Definitely a woman in appearance, voice, and manner, but not born with the same set of parts you’d normally expect. Other thirds can be mostly masculine as well, and some have found a way to straddle the line, expressing a range of both genders in one. No third has ever given birth — a source of great sadness for Yasmin. Me too, truth be told. Apparently, all the chemicals and toxic soup left behind by the Tech Ancients spoiled the land and water so much that thirds became commonplace. Incredibly beautiful people, if you ask me, but the end-of-the-line for each and every one of them, at least reproductively.
“Why?” she screamed, clasping her hands over her head in desperate confusion. “You couldn’t wait for one minute after finishing a job to go traipsing off? And for what?”
Oh no. Here we go again. I’d better reassure her somehow. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing to worry about. No one saw me. And here I am, back early to see you before Jin returns.” I stepped closer, reaching my arms out to embrace her.
She turned away, her backside facing me in defiance. It was hardly a punishment, however, and she knew it. I continued my approach, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. She turned to face me, revealing a small tear escaping from the corner of her eye. Her sobs were hard to take. I curled my arms around her and guided us to our bed.
As we lay side by side, her eyes met mine. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you, Guth. You’ve seen what the masters do to disloyal hands.” It was a dark truth I’d buried deep within me, mostly to cope. I held her tight, caressing her arms and wiping her tears.
I sighed, and said what needed to be said. “I’m sorry, Yasmin. I know you’re right. Curiosity got the best of me. It won’t happen again.” I held her tight, praying for forgiveness. I knew the prospect of my passing tormented her at times. And her infertility made her feel even more vulnerable to a life of solitude. So far, we had weathered those storms quite well.
Eventually, the sobbing stopped, and she turned to look me in the eyes. “Promise me?”
“I promise,” I said, planting a kiss on her cheek. She came at me with full force after that, her tongue darting for my mouth. Our bodies slid into heated rhythm soon afterward, and it wasn’t long before we were writhing back and forth beneath the sheets. Thankfully, I’m able to hold my own for longer than most men I know, which is no small feat with Yasmin. Nothing beats resolving an argument with sexual abandon.
We fell asleep in each other’s arms, exhausted from our passions. An hour later, we awoke to the sound of our front door bursting open and several dishes smashing to the ground.
One of Jin’s henchmen charged into our room, brandishing a club in one hand, and a long wire whip in the other. Behind him, Jin entered slowly, arms crossed. “GUTH!” he roared, looking at me with an angry, piercing stare. “Where have you been? I scored a big job this afternoon, and had no rig leader to introduce our new client to. You made me a fool!”
The henchman smashed several candle pieces and plates on our table, then stomped over to the bed, lashing his whip. Yasmin clutched me from behind, covered in blankets. I’ve seen Jin upset many times before, but he’s never brought a punisher. I took a deep breath.
“Jin, you know I’ve served you well. I was merely taking a break after a hard day’s work so I’d be in prime condition for our next job. I had no idea it would come so soon.”
His eyes narrowed as he grunted in response. “You know, part of me thought you would be wiser than to lie to me. I was so hoping we could continue to trust one another.” He looked over to his henchman. Then came the sharp, searing pain of the whip as it sliced deeply into my right leg. Blood splattered onto the sheets. Yasmin screamed, and quickly backed away. I bit my lip, and covered the gushing wound, hoping to stop the flow.
Jin leered over me, calmly watching my suffering. “My Presidio watchman had you at the docks right around noon, longingly peering at the southern trade ship, and then chatting up its first mate no less. Pardon me if I find your tale of innocence less than convincing.”
Another look. Another lash. And the rest was mostly a daze. Except for one thing: Yasmin had stepped over to the prep counter and grabbed two of our sharpest and longest knives. She’s defended herself quite well in the past, and today was no exception. Before a third lash could come my way, each of those knives found its way squarely between the eyes of Jin and his henchman. They both dropped instantly. And so did I.
I awoke gasping in pain. Lucky for me, Yasmin had stopped the blood flow with tightly wound rags just above my knee. They covered a gash nearly a half-foot long. Feels like a half-foot deep as well. “You all right, love? Can you move?” she asked, caressing my hair.
I grabbed her hand and pulled myself up. Pacing around the room, I tested my stride. It’s not too bad, actually. Thank the maker! Looks like I can walk just fine, as long as I’ve got a helping hand to steady me. I glanced over at the two lifeless bodies on our floor. I had never imagined it would come to this. We’ve got to get out of here. And quickly.
“My sweet, I know you did what you had to. Thank you for that. But the island masters won’t let this go.” I sighed and said: “They’ll have my head for this.”
Yasmin’s eyes met mine. A look of determination and acceptance came over her. “I won’t leave you Guth!” she exclaimed. “We can finally get out of this forsaken place. Start a new life somewhere.” The idea had always held some appeal, and now it had powerful urgency.
My thoughts quickly turned to Dredge and his offer. Was he serious? Would he really just let me join his crew? Could Yasmin earn passage as well?
“I know it was reckless, but my visit to Presidio Point may have bought us the ticket we need,” I explained. “The first mate of that big ship practically offered me a helm job this morning.” I went on to describe our encounter and the potential opportunity. “Of course, I have no idea if the guy was serious, or where we’d end up.”
Yasmin examined my leg, adding another layer to my dressing. She kissed me and said: “At this point, mister, I’m ready for whatever. Let’s get out of here.”
That’s my Yasmin. Always ready for adventure. It’s hard to describe the love I feel for her.
“Okay then,” I said, managing a smile. “Let’s hide these poor fellows in the cellar. That’ll buy us maybe a day or so. And grab what you need. We’re heading to Land’s End.”
§ § §
Sailor’s Lair was bustling and rowdy as usual. Rig hands like me often outnumbered helmsfolk or upper ranks, which was why I liked coming here. I only hoped Dredge was as much of a drinker as I pegged him to be. Yasmin and I scanned the place from front to back, but to no avail. Friends and mates patted me on my back or nodded their heads as we wandered through. I grabbed us a couple sunset mixers and found a cozy nook across from the bar.
Yasmin has only joined me here maybe a handful of times, mostly due to her own demanding schedule, but this time felt particularly liberating. I was first to say so: “Why do I feel so damn excited right now?” I should feel scared shitless.
She grabbed my hand, and guided it slowly to her cheek, glowing in the lantern light. She peered at me lovingly and whispered: “Because you’re finally free, my love. We both are.”
Crash! Clank! Thud.
I turned around to see Dredge’s limp body attempting to sit up, from what must have been a pretty hard fall. Two fellow rig hands from South Sutro were angling for another blow, clearly incensed with my newfound friend. I shot over to them before Dredge’s face became a bloody pulp. “Gents, please!” I shouted, as I held out my hand to block their advance. “I’m sure this cocky mate gave you good reason to be angry, but he and I have some dealings to work out. Let me take him off your hands.” They grunted in agreement as I pulled him over to our table. Dredge was smiling the whole way, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth.
“I’d advise you to watch yourself,” I told him. “These guys don’t take kindly to off-islanders starting brawls on their turf.” We all plopped down on the benches, facing each other.
“Who says I started it?” he responded, smiling through his bloody teeth. He straightened his collar and tipped his cap to Yasmin, eyeing her with obvious interest. “But seein’ as how yous rescued me from a nasty beating, I s’pose I should say thank ya.” His brow furrowed with curiosity as he leaned forward. “Kinda s’prised to see ya here though, Jorel.” The smile widened. “I thought you were such a busy, ‘well-tended-to’ bloke.”
I bristled at the presumption, but couldn’t blame him for calling me out. “Let’s just say I’m now quite interested in your offer,” I said, hoping to refocus the discussion.
“Glad to hear it!” he yelped. “But I can’t help wonderin’, ‘What’s changed?’ Your master catch wind o’ your wayward ways?” His smile lingered. I tried not to let it bother me.
Should I tell him the truth? And jeopardize our chances? I opted for a half-truth: “We’ve had a falling out. I’m no longer in his service.” I grabbed Yasmin’s hand and continued: “My partner and I are both seeking a fresh start. Somewhere we can both apply our skills where they’re truly appreciated. You seem like the kind of guy who could offer that.”
From the look on his face, Dredge was pondering all this very carefully. He turned to Yasmin: “And why would a lovely lady like yourself wanna leave one o’ the most beautiful, bustlin’ island chains in da world? This bloke really worth hitchin’ yourself to?”
I was half-tempted to punch him myself at that. But Yasmin calmed the mood: “Not only is he worth it. I’m worth your while every bit as much. My defense skills as head of security for several island companies will no doubt come in handy as pirates threaten your vessel.”
Dredge raised his eyebrows. “We could shore up our defenses, dat’s for sure. Ran into a nasty pirate ship on our way up just past Santiago. Killed two o’ ‘em myself.”
“All we’re looking for is safe passage, and room and board,” I said. “In exchange, we’ll both work under your command. Diligently and loyally.” Yasmin and I shared a hopeful glance, knowing full well that we could make good on our promise.
Dredge leaned forward again, and looked us squarely in the eyes. “You do understand we’re returning to ‘Ntarctica? Ya know, the new land as far south as the winds’ll blow us. It takes nearly two years.”
I remember him mentioning that before, but the length of time it would take hadn’t dawned on me ‘til then. Yasmin’s nod gave me her assent, but I was still processing what it all meant. I knew Antarctica had opened up over the past several centuries as a new realm with uncharted possibilities. Its once-vast ice sheets had mostly melted into the sea, and its glaciers had receded, unveiling spectacular mountain landscapes, fertile hills, and valleys. “But what would we do in Antarctica?” I asked. “You’d need us for the whole trip?”
“Yep, the entire journey. What ya do when ya get there’s entirely up to yous,” Dredge said. “’Tis a free land with no masters, no servants, and plenty o’ open space for wide-eyed couples to start a new life. Granted, it’s now a popular destination for all sorts o’ scoundrels, refugees, and opportunists from far ‘n’ wide. But so long as you’re willing to put in an honest day’s work, yous’ll do well for yourselves.”
It sounded like a dream. I’d spent all my days growing up, fishing, boating, and rigging all over San Frisco’s main islands, never imagining I would leave. But my time had come. Our time had come. Yasmin was giddy with excitement. We’ve been given a second chance.
We shook hands with Dredge, promised our allegiance, and made way for a nearby inn. As we headed out the door, he called out: “We load up at mid-day tomorrow. Don’t be late.”