Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part II)

» Read PART I, New Beginnings, here.

PART II: The Journey

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s Northwest Coast — The first several weeks of our journey went by rather smoothly. My leg healed nicely, and none of Jin’s confidants got wind of our departure early enough to stop us, or cause any trouble for Dredge and his crew. Yasmin and I have spent many nights in our cabin reminiscing about the good times on Sutro Isle, knowing full well we’ll never see it again. It’s just as well. Adventure beckoned. And we responded.

Of course, we’ve only just begun to realize what that adventure may entail, or what awaits us when we finally reach Antarctica. Maybe we’ll find a way to jump ship early. Time will tell. For now, we’re well-fed, welcomed, and needed more than ever. Yasmin has taken to training some of the deck boys on how to handle a sword, and I spend most days at the helm.

I peered over my shoulder to the western shores. Desolate mountain ranges hugged the coastline as far the eye could see, mostly covered in brown and black. Could these have once been blanketed with forests? An old fishing buddy from my youth once said his family had lived near the southlands, but skirmishes along the slippery border with Upper Mehico forced them northward. From where I stood, I didn’t see much worth fighting over.

Two pairs of footsteps grew louder from below deck. They rose up the stepladder towards me. “Afternoon, mate!” said Dredge in his customary jovial fashion as he entered the control room. He stood to one side to make way for the captain, whose dress was far more formal than the rest of us. I’d chatted with Captain Damien in passing, but she had yet to pay me a personal visit. Maybe she’s starting to wonder about the new guy at the helm. I know I would.

She held out her hand and looked me squarely in the eyes. I stiffened my posture and put my arms at my sides. “At ease, helmsman,” she said. “Dredge has been singing your praises ever since you came aboard. I hear you’ve steered us flawlessly for the past three weeks.”

I relaxed a bit and managed a grin. “Well, I appreciate that, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to steer a class-A ship than most of the beat-up rigs I’m used to,” I said. I looked over at Dredge and noticed his usual wide-ass grin was woefully absent. The captain wasn’t smiling either.

“Still, we’re very grateful for your efforts — especially your stamina through these long days,” she said. Her gaze shifted past me to the passing shores. “See all those webs pitched along that ridge over there?” I turned to see huge arrays of thinly woven nets, spread far and wide along the ridgeline. Enormous mast-length poles jutted skyward, holding the webbed walls tightly against the rushing winds. Gusty imprints danced along the webbing for miles on end. Truly breathtaking. But they wouldn’t stop anyone trying to get through.

“What you’re seeing is probably the longest water catchment system on the West coast,” the captain said. “On some mornings, the incoming fog layer creates enough droplets to fill the locals’ cisterns to the brim. Of course, there can’t be more than a few thousand souls living in these barren lands now. Legend has it this zone was once home to millions of Tech Ancients. Would you believe they even believed they were living in a city of angels?”

I’d heard the same thing about the San Frisco Isles and our bay-delta zone. Creeping deserts, rising seas, and vanishing fresh water must’ve forced most to find new lives elsewhere — or die trying. I can’t imagine living among millions of people, all in such a small space. Must’ve been insane. In the distance, several tall grey structures began to take shape along the shore, and large plumes of smoke rose up behind them. A dozen or so other vessels were anchored at a small port directly ahead, but no one was wandering the docks.

“Are we stopping here?” I asked, tacking the rudder slightly to keep a respectable distance.

The captain looked over to Dredge, then back to me, clearly apprehensive about something. “I’m afraid we are,” she said. “But we must be very careful. On our way up, we tried off-loading some cargo on order by a local merchant. But we were turned away by the portmaster. A passenger representing one of our most wealthy clients insists that we try again.”

Dredge chimed in: “Seems there’s been a change-o’-the-guard ‘round here. From the looks of it, whoever’s taken over doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.”

Just as I was about to ask him a question, Dredge’s arm was struck by a long arrow, pinning him to the handrail. Blood shot from his forearm as he screamed in pain. We ducked for cover. I helped free Dredge and wrapped his puncture wound as best as I could.

Whooosh! Another set of arrows whizzed past the back door of the control room.

Smash! Several more pierced the window, spraying shards everywhere and slicing my cheek.

“Defense formation!” yelled the captain, as she rose to sound the alarm. Several seconds later, another hailstorm of arrows rained down on the upper deck. I could hear guttural sounds from crewmen who must have taken a hit. Now was my chance. If the intervals between barrages continued apace, I had just enough time. I sprang for the steering wheel and made a hard turn starboard. The captain shut the back door to the control room for protection. Overhead, the masts groaned in rebellion to the sudden shift in course. But our sails caught the southerly winds nicely and began pulling us to safety.

I peered out the front window to see Yasmin dragging an injured crewman to shelter. She looked at me with worried, but determined eyes and yelled: “Raise the speed sails!”

Of course! I had totally forgotten. This ship had spare sails for picking up extra velocity in times of need. The captain quickly snuck out the back door and rounded up several crew. They opened a front compartment and cranked open the booster sails. The captured winds quickly gave us a few more knots, and soon we were out of our attackers’ reach.

“That was a close one!” Dredge grunted, clearly in agony. He patted my back and collapsed.

That night, we licked our wounds and vowed to sail on, but much further from shore. “I can help guide our way by the star patterns,” said the captain. “Let’s not take any chances.”

We had a few more months until our next stop at the southern-most reaches of Mehico. Our rations could keep us well-fed until then, as long as our nets pulled in enough fish. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but our nets would pull in far more than that.

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s West Coast — The protein stores were nearly empty. Today’s mission: pull in as many fish as humanly possible before the stink of mutiny filled the air. Lucky for us, there were plenty of well-stocked schools in these parts. A half-dozen crew spent the morning casting nets astern, and hauling in some killer catches at that.

Only problem was, some awfully threatening storm clouds were determined to keep us company along the western horizon. Occasionally, they lashed down blazing whips of lightning and rumbling thunderclaps just to scare us. I could make out a few torrents here and there kicking up waves, but only for brief spells. Good lord, I hope we can keep clear of those.

No such luck. A heavy set of whirling gusts began pushing us dangerously close to the storm fronts, forcing us to cut our fishing expedition short. “Haul in the nets!” ordered the captain. Some predictable whining followed. Hungry bellies rarely show good manners.

I was at the helm doing my best to steer us away from the worst of the oncoming waves. Yasmin was keeping me company, along with one of her newest friends, Amuria. The two of them hit it off a few nights ago in the game room. They’d struck up a contest to see who could last the longest as the ship’s resident python slithered around their necks. Amuria lasted for at least 15 minutes. Yasmin, about 15 seconds. Needless to say, my sweet’s pride was knocked down a peg or two, until she caught wind of why she’d lost so badly. Turns out, Amuria’s a Seer — a rare, but growing group of folks who can communicate with other creatures, especially those with similar senses as we have. Pythons are a bit different from humans than most animals, but she could catch its gaze nonetheless, calming it into submission.

“You could have won hands-down,” Amuria was saying to Yasmin. “You just need to channel that raw focus of yours toward connecting with our animal cousins.” I could tell Yasmin was a little irritated. It was, shall we say, yet another ability that escaped her grasp.

“You’re too kind,” she responded. “I could never tame those wild beasts like you. Besides, if I spent too much time with bobcats and snakes, this hunky helmsman might get jealous.” She threw me a wink and a smile, and snuck her hand around the wheel for a quick grab. I focused ahead to stop from being too distracted. We’re already in enough danger as it is.

Several waves struck us hard, nearly knocking us off our feet. Or at least they felt like waves.

“Guth!” Yasmin exclaimed. Her eyes widened as a look of terror came over her. I followed her gaze out the back door of the control room. I could hardly believe my eyes: three enormous tentacle arms were slithering toward us from the ship’s stern. One of them had completely enveloped a crewman who’d been reeling in the fishnets. This gigantic octopus must have got caught in the netting as it was being pulled in. Judging from its behavior, it was none too happy about it either. The crewman screamed in horror as his helpless body slammed into the gunwale, snapping one of his legs under the sheer force of the impact.

My nerves shot through me like wildfire. I knew these creatures existed from tales that legendary sailors had told for generations. But I never imagined seeing one myself! Some say they used to be far smaller, but that long ago the Tech Ancients had hunted down all their competitors, clearing the way for their own gluttonous feeding frenzy at sea. Whatever the reason, we were now face to face with this massive beast’s hungry rage.

I began tacking us back and forth in an attempt to shake our visitor loose. Yasmin collected herself and pulled out her prized dagger, scanning the deck for a heading. She darted for the captured crewman, screaming as she ran. I peered over my shoulder and saw her lunge for the octopus’s arm. She stabbed it deeply enough to cause it to release the crewman. Its undulating arm recoiled in pain, slithering back overboard. Yasmin pulled the crewman aside.

The lightning flashes were getting closer, and the waters increasingly rocky. It wouldn’t be long before we were hit by the torrents. Meanwhile, the octopus had lifted two more of its arms on deck, and began pulling its bulbous head overboard. Dredge and Captain Damien brandished their swords and sliced through the air in an attempt to scare it off. But that only seemed to make it angrier. It tilted its head back, revealing a hungry, gaping mouth.

Before the captain knew it, she was coiled from behind by one of the octopus’s tentacles. Its suckers latched onto her body with a deathly grip. She gasped for air as her sword slammed to the floor. The creature lifted her toward its mouth, and gooey slime dripped onto the deck from its snapping beak. Dredge and Yasmin leaped to the captain’s defense, but both were swept away by another of the octopus’s powerful arms. The creature made quick work of the captain, puncturing her chest with its sharp-toothed tongue, tearing loose several ribs, and disemboweling her with its beak. We lost the captain! Her lifeless body slammed mercilessly onto the deck. But before the beast had a chance to begin dining on her, Amuria stepped in.

I could barely believe my eyes as I saw her: Amuria carried a basket of fish in one hand, and held out a fish in the other, gliding its flapping body along the suckers of one of the octopus’s tentacles. She walked slowly toward its giant head, staring ahead with calm determination. It retracted its snapping beak, and pivoted face-forward for a better view. Amuria set down the basket of fish near the octopus’s mouth, and carefully placed a hand on its slick, reddish head. It began snapping up the fish in clear appreciation. Slowly, the octopus’s skin around Amuria’s hand began to change color, mimicking the light brown of her palm. Amuria smiled, and caressed its frontal lobe. The creature opened its eyes widely, scanned the deck to see that no one was attacking, and then slowly retracted its tentacles and slid back to sea.

What a relief! My arms ached. I’d been steering us frantically away from the storms for at least an hour. I’m not gonna brag, but I think I saved our asses. Along with Amuria, of course. She and Yasmin were busy putting a tourniquet on our injured crewman. It’ll be a miracle if he makes it. Several other crewmembers circled the captain’s body, and stood in silence over her. Dredge approached the circle, placing his hands on two of his comrades. “Never forget the bravery o’ this hero, mateys,” he offered, and placed his cap over his heart.

After a few minutes, Dredge approached the control room, sporting a look of astonishment. “You, matey, are a godsend!” he belted, patting me hard on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen anyone keep their cool like that while poundin’ through storm waves, let alone navigatin’ through that.” He looked out the back toward Yasmin. “Your firebrand partner’s also provin’ to be quite the badass.” He looked back at me and waited until he had my full attention. “Only question is: now that I’m cap’n, who’s gonna be my first mate?”

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Lower Mehico’s West Coast — Bahía Nica was only hours away now. I’ve only heard of a few places that are home to ten thousand or more, and this was one of them. Much like Californ’s huge inner bay that stretches for hundreds of miles, Lower Mehico’s southernmost bay stretches for at least a hundred, and even offers safe passage to the Atlantic Coast, if that’s where you were headed. I’ll admit, the thought had crossed my mind. Lord knows how much longer I can take being out at sea, especially with all the new duties now on my shoulders. Being a first mate and first helmsman isn’t for the faint of heart.

“What if we just keep an open mind?” I asked Yasmin, hoping she might consider scoping out new horizons with me while we took shore leave at Nica Bay. “We’ve got valuables to trade, and plenty of skills to offer. Do you really want to spend the next twenty months or more cooped up on this ship?” I actually didn’t mind our quarters, which had expanded quite nicely ever since my promotion. But I knew Yasmin enjoyed her freedom to explore.

“Love, I know you haven’t had as much time to get to know our fellow travelers as much as I have.” She cupped my chin and looked deeply into my eyes. “I’ve seen how joyful they are, how proud they are to call Antarctica their home, and how excited they are to return.”

I caressed her arms and pulled her to my side. Smiling, I asked: “Then why are they spending four years away from their beloved homeland? And risking so much?”

She leaned over to me, and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. “Don’t you see? They’re adventurers. Just like us. Many don’t even live in settlements.”

Fascinating. The idea had never occurred to me. “You mean, they’re wanderers?”

“In a sense,” said Yasmin. She sat back on our bed and pulled back her hair. “More like they simply don’t dwell in permanent structures. I’ve heard some of the eastern valleys are so lush and fertile that people can feast off the land for weeks, even without hunting.”

“Amuria’s one of them, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, and many like her, though none here with her keen abilities,” Yasmin said. “Most of the craftsmen and women on board are ‘freelanders’ like Amuria. They’ve spent a lifetime honing their skills and making some of the finest arts and crafts the world over.”

I shared Yasmin’s desire for a new home. And Antarctica did sound promising. I just couldn’t bear the thought of hunkering down at sea for another 20 months. We’d already been attacked twice in under four months! Who knows what danger lurks in the Southern Pacific?

Yasmin gave me an encouraging clasp on my shoulders, and rose to change into her nightgown. As she dressed, she looked back to me and smiled. “We’re going to be fine here, Guth. I promise to take good care of you.” She paced herself slowly back to our bedside, shedding her nightgown as she walked. “And tonight, I promise you won’t be getting to bed early.”

§   §   §

Bahía Nica, Lower Mehico — We awoke to the bustling sounds of Nica Harbor. Horns from ships going to and fro, people chattering as they walked the creaking docks, and seagulls squawking overhead. We dressed, grabbed our bags, and headed up top to disembark.

The view of Nica Bay from on deck was simply stunning: glistening blue-green waters formed a serene pool of stillness as far as the eye could see, bordered by orderly fishing villas built from wood and earthen clay. Horse-drawn carts and people carrying baskets and nets filled the seaside thoroughfare, and a local food market marked the entrance to the main port town of Managua. The morning sea breezes kept the tropical heat at bay for now, but judging from the scantily-clad throngs, it was clear we were in for a steamy stay.

“Lookin’ forward to a lil down time, no doubt!” Dredge said as we approached the off ramp. He handed us a crib sheet with some local phrases for getting by at the food stands and inns. “You won’t get far with ‘ol English in these parts. Just Mehican Spanish, and some ‘ol native dialects, if you happen to know any o’ those.” He winked and tilted his cap forward.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a bit anxious all of a sudden. We shouldered our belongings and stepped onto the ramp. Then, Dredge abruptly blocked my path with his arm.

“Just one thing,” he said. “I’ll need yous to leave that precious golden dagger wit me.”

“Why?” asked Yasmin, as she pulled it from her sheath. “We might need it for protection.”

He shook his head in disappointment. “Come on. You’ve got half a dozen deadly knives stashed away in those pants ‘n’ boots. And Guth’s hand sword oughta scare off any attackers foolish ‘nuff to try anything. Yous got some dangerous plans I should know ‘bout?”

I bristled at the accusation. But he clearly had his suspicions. “Listen Dredge, I don’t know what this is all about, but I would think we’d have proven ourselves to you by now.”

“Oh you have,” Dredge responded. “I just can’t take any chances right now, mate. Hand ‘er over Yasmin. I promise you’ll see ‘er again as soon as I see your gorgeous self and this fine fella traipsin’ back up this ramp. Yous got three days o’ leave. Enjoy ‘em.”

Yasmin unclipped her sheath, and handed Dredge the dagger. “I’ll hold you to your word.”

“You have my word,” he said, stashing the piece in his handbag. He nodded and walked off.

We descended the off ramp and walked up the docks without speaking. I could sense Yasmin’s glare. She finally broke the silence: “He’s onto you, Guth. What did you say?”

A burning anger came over me. “Oh, so now it’s my fault Dredge is getting paranoid?” I barked back. “You think I’m stupid enough to give him reason to worry?”

Yasmin pulled away. She was clearly hurt, her growing frown crowding out any other emotion. “But you must have given him reason to suspect something,” she said. Her tone grew shrill. “Honestly, Guth, I can’t believe you’d be willing to risk our future like this!”

What future did she mean? Our long slog at sea? Our murky life in Antarctica? “And what future would that be, exactly?” I asked. “You have absolutely no idea what’s in store for us. Except that it’ll just be you and me, scrabbling for some sense of place and purpose!”

Tears began welling up in Yasmin’s eyes. I’d said too much. Or perhaps I simply hadn’t said enough before today. She looked down at the dusty ground, wiped her eyes, and slowly lifted her head. “I didn’t know I was so hard to be with, Guth,” she finally said, sobbing through her words. She collected herself and said calmly: “Maybe you should go find another luckless lady in town to ‘scrabble’ around with. I’m sure there are plenty here who’d be more than willing. Who knows? She might even give you that son you’ve always wanted.”

I stepped towards her, arms outstretched. She turned away, waving me off, and began walking briskly toward the main drag. “Yasmin!” I shouted. “Wait! Please wait!” But it was too late. What had long been unsaid was now suddenly a gaping wound. My rising anger had morphed into festering sadness. She knew full well I deeply wished to be a father — a father to my own flesh and blood. Worse, it was a wish she could never hope to fulfill.

Perhaps it’s best we spend some time apart. Clearly, our emotions are getting the best of us. I wandered through the produce and spice stands, taking in the heavy aromas and beautiful faces. Children ran around a small tree in an open circle, as chickens waddled freely among them. I walked toward a long row of inns, stables, and merchant shops.

I know I could be a good father, I thought. Would it matter if my child was mine from birth? Yasmin was willing to join me in raising a child. And she would be a wonderful mother. Why couldn’t I find solace in that future?

The next three days were harrowing. I wandered the streets in search of Yasmin, frequenting the main drag, the markets, and the docks. There was no sign of her anywhere, and worse, no word from the crew. Could she have left, abandoning our journey? How ironic that would be! Each night I slept alone, recounting my words to her, and regretting my overreaction. I couldn’t imagine continuing on without her, at sea or anywhere else for that matter. In a couple hours, I would need to make a decision.

I packed up and headed over to the local blacksmith. Whatever I do, I’d better sharpen up my hand sword. As I entered the shop, I overheard a familiar voice. My heart began racing as I rounded the display cases. Yasmin was browsing some knives and daggers, of course. She turned and caught my gaze. I was smiling uncontrollably as I waited for a sign.

“Guth!” she responded, smiling with forgiveness. I dashed over to her and gave her a long embrace, whispering: “I’m so sorry, my sweet. I should never have said what I did.” I lifted her chin and kissed her deeply. We both cried for several minutes as we held each other close.

“I’m here to sharpen my sword for our journey,” I made sure to say. She laughed and held up two gleaming, newly forged daggers. “Looks like we’ll both be ready for the next attack.”

We grabbed some fresh produce on our way back to the ship, and headed up the ramp. At the top, Dredge grinned and pulled out Yasmin’s pride and joy. “Good to see the two o’ yous!” He patted my shoulder hard, nearly knocking me off balance. “Oops! Sorry mate!” he said.

After we settled back in, napped, and grabbed some grub, dusk had settled over Nica Bay. With Dredge at the helm for our departure, we decided to take in the view from on deck. Several other crew and their families had the same idea, making for a bit of a deck party.

One family of three sat across from us, with the mother breastfeeding her newborn. “Your daughter is simply a gem, Jornatha,” said Yasmin. Jornatha smiled back. Tears suddenly began streaming down her face. Yasmin leaned over to comfort her, taking her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Jornatha through her sobs. “It’s just, well, I can hardly believe this day has come. Torm and I had been trying for so long. It wasn’t until years after we’d moved to Antarctica that we got pregnant. I always thought folks like me couldn’t have any of our own.”

“Folks like you?” asked Yasmin. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Jornatha looked at each of us, searching for a sign of trust. “I thought you knew. I’m a third, like you, Yasmin. But somehow, somehow, that unspoiled land holds healing powers. I’m fertile.”

Chills coursed through my spine. Yasmin gasped for air. I put an arm around her as the news sank in. Could it really be? Could we actually have a chance at our own children? New possibilities raced through my mind, and feelings of excitement suddenly consumed me.

“That’s so wonderful!” Yasmin managed, fighting back her own tears.

She faced me, grabbed my hands, and stared lovingly into my eyes. No words were needed. We kissed and cried, holding each other under the brightening stars. Nica Harbor receded into the background, and the dark, misty night replaced the warm glow of Managua.

Although we wouldn’t reach Antarctica for well over a year and a half, it had already become our new home. In the months to come, tales of its rich cultures, its glorious mountains, fresh waters and bountiful valleys would only add to our conviction to carry on. But it was only on that night, as we left Nica Bay, that our journey to Antarctica had truly begun.

END

Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part I)

Destination_Antarctica_3015PART I: New Beginnings

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.

Jin!

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.”