The Chan-Couver Islands
Jonah looked up at a world kaleidoscoped by the sweat in his eyes—and, he was chagrined to admit, by his own weak tears. The last Chan, his own grandmother, had accepted the Last Rites yesterday with the expected dignity—and dry eyes—and pushed off from Charon with the last of her frail strength. Bedecked in a lei of agrimony, her silver hair spreading out on the water, she slipped into the Womb of the Pacific.
Hauling barrels onboard ships wasn’t Jonah’s normal labor but he volunteered on his day off for a diversion. The flotilla needed to be ready by the morrow and every pair of strong hands was appreciated. Stripped to the waist, his nut-brown skin and curly black hair glistered with moisture. He swiped his eyes with his forearm, sweat on tears. He could see no clearer. And yet it seemed to him that he momentarily glimpsed a boat—or something—on the horizon, perhaps halfway to the mainland. But surely someone more keen-eyed would’ve already noticed and raised the alarm.
The Chans were once the most powerful family on the island, a matriarchal dynasty of artisans going back hundreds of years. And then, without warning, Jonah’s grandmother’s grandmother ended it. Power was turned over to thirteen guild-regions, each an autonomous locus of a particular artform. Some of the elders still grumbled that the old way was better, but this was the only reality Jonah’s generation had ever known.
Another volunteer, a giant of a man with the Chinese characters fan run (felon) tattooed on the back of his left hand, was awkwardly roll-dragging a barrel past him when it slipped and hit Jonah’s barrel, pinching his hand against the bamboo side rail.
“Frack it all, man! Watch what you’re doing!”
“It’s Jonah!” He was getting hungry and would take a lunch break soon. Just a few more barrels to finish this row.
His grandmother’s body had looked so serene as she slept on the boat’s couch. It was the first time he had seen her without pain in over a year. She had taken the Last Rites potion and was snoring softly. He stroked her shoulder as the Catholic priestess began to intone the valediction.
In the name of the Father above…
“Lai-Lai, wake up.”
and the Mother below…
“It’s time to go.”
and the Christ within…
Her eyelids fluttered, opened, and she focused on his face. It was his last clear sight of her for the tears came then and wouldn’t stop till after she was gone.
We came from the sea and to the sea we return…
She took his hand, kissed it, and then gripped it with surprising strength as he helped her gently into the water.
Salt water filled your mother’s womb, flows through your veins, forms your tears, and now welcomes you home…
And then she was gone.
The twelve acolytes turned Charon around and rowed it home.
The tall volunteer was back, his pale skin pink with too much sun, roll-dragging yet another barrel. This time Jonah stood back, gave his eyes another swipe, and looked east. There was definitely something there, larger now, a boat of some kind.
“Hey,” Jonah said.
The pink giant looked up.
“Do you see anything over there?” He pointed.
The man squinted, then, eyebrows raised, shrieked, “Incoming! In-com-ing!” and went running off the ship.
Jonah shrugged and took his lunch break.
Over the next hour, after three security boats—two above water, one below—had been dispatched, it became clear that it was another refugee boat. They were coming more frequently these days, two in the last week; it was not a good sign. Some blamed overpopulation, others famine, but it amounted to the same thing: overshoot.
The Chan-Couver Islands had strict laws in place since long before the Chans. At the beginning of every season the Privy Council would gather, hear the reports from each guild-region and then publish the Limits: island population (people and other notable species), projected births and deaths, food storage, projected harvests, and so on. It went on for pages and pages and was available for all to read at the local Guild House, but most people just cared about the human population numbers and how it affected those closest to them. Would this young couple be able to keep their baby? Would that elder need to go?
The Limits also influenced commerce. The seasonal excursions to the mainland—hence the preparations of this flotilla—brought different combinations of guild products and performances, all with the hope of generating a revenue of food stuffs, technology, other goods, and, most interestingly, new people. Usually a Privy Councillor or two accompanied every excursion and had veto rights on any immigrants depending on guild needs, individual talents, and health.
Unexpected incomers were another story. Sometimes, rarely, a suitable person or couple was allowed to stay, but most received the minimum food and overnight lodgings, then were summarily escorted off the next day. Nobody liked that job; it was worse than being an acolyte or priestess on Charon duty. At least the latter had a sense of the sacred about it.
Today’s small boat of incomers arrived peaceably enough—sometimes it got ugly—but it was packed full of children. Eleven children and three adults, to be exact. They looked terrible: thin, frail, and their skin burnt and peeling. The two babies were weakly squalling. It was heartbreaking, but it wasn’t the first time this year that so many children arrived at once.
Ivy, true to her name, clung to the refugees and offered multilingual greetings. She headed the local chapter of the I.I.S., Island Immigration Society, and ran her all-volunteer crew with a mixture of compassion and discipline.
“Please, follow me.”
The few that could walk did so, the others were lifted onto a horse-drawn carriage with a cloth top. Ivy’s volunteers swarmed the newcomers, sitting close, providing freshwater, brushing hair. One of the helpers was Ivy’s young daughter, Genevieve, every bit as bold as her mother. She scrambled up into the carriage and sat next to a little girl about her age.
“Hi! I’m Genny.”
The other girl looked at her through solemn dark-brown eyes and a tear-streaked face.
“Would you like some candy? I have some right here.” She reached into her homespun shirt pocket, pulled out a small wad of paper, opened it to reveal a delight of pink taffy, pinched off a piece, and handed it to her guest. She put another piece in her own mouth.
“Wusher name?” she asked chewfully.
The other girl pushed her tangled hair behind her ear. “Ana,” she whispered.
Later in the day, after dark, Ivy sat exhausted before her hearthfire. Genevieve was braiding her mother’s hair and whining.
“Pleeease, Mama? Can’t we adopt her?”
“Genny. We’ve already discussed this. It’s more complicated than that.” She tried to sound stern but her resolve was melting. Ana was sound asleep in Genny’s bed and could be seen through the open door. A decision didn’t have to be made right away. Thanks to Ivy’s incessant lobbying, the Architecture Guild-Region Gubernatorial Office had granted this boatload of refugees a one-week reprieve.
Early the next morning, while purple turned to pink in the eastern sky, Captain Connor limped down the pier, his deeply calloused hand gently caressing the hull of the Leo. He paused. His fingers had found a hairline crack in the pitch. After almost three decades of constant service, she was still in good shape but needed a close eye kept on her. Moving on, he considered the manifest: 36 barrels of the finest Eastfell wine; 60 cubic meters of architectural supplies (from window frames to insculpted buttresses); a similar amount of staging and props for the Thespians (the actors themselves traveling on another ship, thank the seas); exactly 325 individually wrapped, “exquisitely carved” (so said the Guild Mistress) statuettes (who on Gaia would buy all those, he had no idea); and, as usual, several large bags of mail.
Then there was his crew: other than his regular nine officers (minus one on her honeymoon), he had 17 experienced swabbies and—whose bright idea was this?—a full eleven scrubs. Being the Chief Training Officer of the Chan-Couver Fleet meant—of course—dealing with a constant stream of—
“Sir? I—I mean Cap’n Sir?”
Speak of the devils. His quiet morning walk was over. He dropped his hand from the ship’s flank and slowly turned around.
“Sir Cap’n Connor, Sir? Yi-Shu from the Music Guild-Region re—reporting for duty, Sir.” He stood at attention, the pink sky reflecting off his glossy black hair. He was a full hour early.
“At ease, sailor.” The boy was taller than Con and gunnel-thin. He was holding a violin case. The captain nodded at it. “Why d’you wanna be a sailor?”
The boy glanced down at the case. “Oh, uh, Sir, I, uh, like the violin and all—”
“Are you any good?”
“Oh, yes, Sir!”
Con raised an eyebrow.
“It’s just, Sir, well…it’s just I love boats—ships, I mean—and I’ve always—”
“Report to the Crew Master. On board.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” He hurried up the plank before the captain changed his mind.
By daybreak, the docks were abuzz with activity: last minute changes, typical controlled chaos. Con sat with the other captains, six in all, across the street in the Merlin & Bairn Pub. He put his mug down and licked the foam off his graying mustache with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Lovelyn, why don’t you take the lead this time?”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“There’s a first time for everything. Besides, I’ve got a frackload of scrubs.”
That brought a round of nods and laughter.
Con smiled. “And one of ‘em’s a con-cert vi-o-lin-ist.”
More laughter. Lovelyn played air-violin and eked out a little ditty.
Two-thirds of the way to New Saddle, Captain Lovelyn tacked the flotilla in a way Con would not have, but it proved not to be calamitous. The sails balked at the new bearing. Live and learn. He smiled to himself, remembering a particularly embarrassing episode early in his career, but his reverie was cut short by the sweet tones of a woman’s voice drifting by, as if from off the water. A siren!? No, a violin! He spun around and scanned the main deck. Where was that lanky fellow?
“Turn down the radio!”
“Sir?” The helmsman looked at him quizzically.
“Turn it down!”
There it was again; he knew this melody; his wife had sung it to their son. It seemed to float down from the heavens.
He looked up.
“I’ll be fracked,” he murmured.
Yi-Shu was high aloft in the crow’s nest, dancing with the swaying of the ship, utterly lost in his music.
Later that night, well after dark, the ships secure in New Saddle’s Salish Harbor, Yi-Shu was playing a gigue at a beach barbecue gathering of the sailors and locals. Con approached in the shadows and, when the music ended, spoke quietly to the violinist’s back.
“How was the view from the crow’s nest?”
Yi-Shu whirled and, catching the fire in the captain’s eyes, stammered, “I—I, it—it, good evening. Cap’n Sir!” He stood erect, violin and bow at his sides.
The noise of the small party tumbled away.
“Sir…Sir…,” several sailors snapped to attention.
Con motioned to them. “Sit down, sit down. At ease.” He turned to the locals. “Pray continue.” Then, as the sibilant voices and laughter resumed, to Yi-Shu, “You weren’t neglecting your duties while entertaining us earlier today, were you?”
“Oh, no, Sir! I had finished with—”
“Good. Now tell me about that fiddle of yours. It looks old.”
“Your violin. Is it—?”
“Oh, yes, Sir. It’s an heirloom. A Weisshaar original.” He held it up in both hands, the bow dangling from his forefinger.
The captain’s forehead wrinkled. “It must be—”
“Yes, Sir. Nearly a thousand years old. So you know about violins…Sir?”
“My grandmother used to play. She was quite good. So how is it that a mere sailor is entrusted with….” He gestured toward the instrument and Yi-Shu unexpectedly placed it in his hands, his skin tingling from the touch. “For Gaia’s sake,” Con whispered reverently. The fissured varnish sparkled in the firelight. The violin seemed a living thing.
The ruins of St. Teilhard de Chardin stood near the shores of Old Saddle where a few of the buildings were over 800 years old. The cathedral was the last one built in the Northern Americas before the Church of Rome became more decentralized. It was a marvel of late twenty-second-century architecture, its walls wild wings of stone—an extravagant throwback to the Age of Waste. The Architecture Guild apprentices flocked here to study the frivolity of early so-called “sustainable” engineering. And yet, despite its technological failure, there was something sacred about its stark desolation.
The field to its leeward side had become a public park and the Chan-Couver Thespians were setting up their staging close to the church walls. Inside, with the open sky as a ceiling, a sizable cohort of religious—and not a few lay observers and guests—had gathered to hear the reading of yet another encyclical from Pontifex Benedict XX. Bishop Sharlyn, as usual, eschewed the gaudy cathedra and sat off to the side with her old friend Rabbi Michael.
“This ought to be interesting,” she remarked wryly.
“Be nice,” he gently chided, twisting one of the silver streams in his beard. “How is Rebekah?”
“Congratulations! Mazel tov!”
“This will be our first.”
“I know, I know.”
He smiled and patted her knee.
The orator was Father Jei, a charismatic sycophant who reveled in the Sturm und Drang of the current “Pope.” Benedict was the first male pontifex in over a century and the first to revive the old patriarchal honorific since before the first woman pontifex, Mary Magdalene the First. Jei, in his serpentine fashion, had practically begged Sharlyn for the privilege of reading the encyclical on live radio. She was more than happy to unload the responsibility.
After an opening blessing and short hymn, Fr. Jei began.
Neovaticanus, March 25, 3015.
The cornerstone of our common faith is unity in Christ…
On the other side of the church wall, inaudible to those inside, Jonah was hammering the railing into place along the on-stage stairs. His craftsmanship was well recognized and he often booked gigs with the Thespians when he could. As much as he loved his home, there was something about the mainland that was, well, enchanting.
A few steps away, the lead actor was practicing his lines, barefoot and in shortpants, getting a feel for the acoustics here.
“…to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”
Inside the walls, a parallel locution:
For too long the Church, indeed all of mankind, has suffered the ravages of division. We must come together…
“…To die, to sleep— / No more…”
We must not stand idly by while injustices linger unchecked…
“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely…”
Our far-flung and adrift diocese struggle with heresy, cry out for solidarity, and strain against the restrictions of local economies…
“The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns…”
Our uncertain future demands strong leadership and so with our recent acquisition of the Arctic Shipping Corporation… At this, there were gasps and knowing looks. …we can now provide freedom of movement for all pilgrims worldwide and guarantee a faithful information network for all people.
The bishop’s face was red. “In the name of unity,” she muttered.
Jonah tested the railing with a good shake, then, satisfied, sat down on the bottom steps. He gazed around him with interest: families gathering and staking out spots with blankets and lowchairs; an older boy pushing a younger one in a bamboo wheelchair too quickly, until they inevitably ended up in a heap of limbs and laughter; daisies blooming; and—wow—a young woman with braided red hair walking…right…up…to…him?
“Excuse me, are you with the troupe?”
He didn’t hear her, or, rather, he heard her but it didn’t register. He always found the mainlanders’ mode of dress a little odd, but somehow it looked really good on her.
She asked him again in Mandarin.
“Oh, I speak English. It’s just that I was, uh, yes, I mean no, I’m not one of the actors, just a set builder.”
“Oh. Well, who might I talk to about auditioning?”
“That’d be Shawn. He—or she (depending on his mood)—just left for a bit, but I can show you around, introduce you to a few people.”
“That’d be great. Thanks.”
“You wanna try out my stairs?”
“Are they safe?”
Right then, Adeline, the diva, floated onto the stage and began warming up her renowned pipes with some warbling scales. She was to give a short recital in about two hours, prior to the play. With her neck scarf fluttering behind her and her ample bosom, she resembled a ship’s bowmaiden. At her euphonious release, the world froze: the only movement the accompanist’s hands running up and down the bender piano.
Jonah’s acquaintance was mesmerized. “Gentle Gaia! She’s my favorite! I’ve never been this close….”
Adeline launched into an old Chinese aria, her body shapeshifting into a spurned lover, her dark arms encircling her white dress a metaphor of deep rivers of emotion emptying into a bleached wasteland. “Bu yao fang qi wou….” Do not abandon me. Her voice drifted off.
Jonah blinked his eyes and breathed again. “I’ve heard her on the radio before, but this was….”
The young woman beside him had tears in her eyes. “Miss Adeline?” she squeaked.
The sounds of the field crescendoed.
“Miss Adeline?” she repeated from midway up the stairs.
The diva turned and looked up.
“I…I…. Thank you.”
Adeline smiled serenely and exited stage right.
The young woman suddenly hugged Jonah. He stood straight, arms at his side, eyes wide open.
The distant whistle of the steam-hybrid train marked four o’clock. The crowded field before the stage was dappled by the dance of sun and clouds. It wouldn’t rain after all.
The opening act was the blonde-ringleted winner of the venerable Sure Temple Award. (No one was quite sure of the award’s origins, but it was obviously religious.) A mere five summers old, Willow-Ember was already famous throughout the Northwest Union, and as she bounced into view the place went wild. Little kids rushed the stage and she leaned down to touch their outstretched hands. The musicians started playing, the piano pitches bending, and Willow launched into a song and dance classic from the late twenty-ninth century. Her clap-dance technique was adorable and after the show she sold a record number of signed impressions.
It was during the next act, when one of Adeline’s ballads held the field enraptured that Captain Connor’s next-in-command came up and whispered in his ear. “There’s trouble back home, Sir.” The man was pungent with exertion.
Con tore himself from the singer’s spell. “What sort of trouble?”
People nearby shushed them.
He rose from his lowchair and took his officer to the fringe of the crowd where small children were playing chase and lovers were snuggling.
“It’s an uprising, Sir. In New Victory, Naimo, and all the main towns.”
“It seems to be, Sir.”
“When did you find out?”
“Ten minutes ago, Sir. On the ship’s radio. I came here straight-away.”
“Qi! So what’s it about? Who’s behind it? The Sov’reigntists?”
The captain nodded pensively. “Get my things. I’ll meet you at the ship. And tell Captain Lovelyn. She’s up near the front.”
Con glanced at the stage. Though the diva was distant, her voice magically carried all the way back here. He turned away into the evenfall.
In short order the six captains and their senior officers were gathered on Leo’s main deck. Captain Lovely had been last to arrive. Adeline was her cousin so she had been loathe to leave the concert early. She was in a foul mood. Con had been pacing. When Lovelyn arrived he stopped and began in earnest, “I have been in contact with Admiral Shel. She assures me that things are under control, but we are to remain vigilant for anything out of the ordinary. As per protocol we are to remain neutral regarding political issues, help maintain the peace, status quo, etc., etc.” He paused.
“Now that the official pabulum is out of the way, I will speak freely. It is no secret that I am sympathetic to the Sov’reigntists’ cause. The Levelist ideology of the Post-Chan era has eroded our Islands’ distinctive artistic excellence. Our economy has suffered….” He stopped. “I’m sorry. This is no time for a political speech.”
Which was true enough. In the wake of the Age of Tumult, the Chan dynasty had birthed an atelier milieu that led to an unprecedented florescence of the arts. Chan-Couver creations were coveted around the world. The subsequent abdication and democratization of power led, under increasing Levelist influence, to a more equal distribution of resources and a high widespread happiness index, especially among those in support roles, such as farmers. But, paradoxically, it also led to a lower quality of art and, therefore, an overall decrease in the Islands’ income. One by one, the Chan-Couver guilds were no longer the best.
“I’m no artist,” Con continued, “but I’m damn proud of our Islands’ reputation—or what it used to be—and I’m willing to fight, to stake my career, on getting it back. I pray to Gaia that it doesn’t come to bloodshed. I will also not stand for a mutiny. If you don’t like my politics, I won’t hold it against you. Talk to my Number One and switch places with someone on another ship. We depart tomorrow at noon.” He paused. “We all have to stand somewhere. I stand with the Nunnik clan.”
The Nunniks had lived on the Islands from time immemorial and, through intermarriage with the Chans, held what most Sov’reigntists considered to be the claim to succession. Galadrielle, the eldest daughter and an exceptional textilist in her own right, had been groomed for just such a time. She was quite adept in the ways of politics and had even served for a time on the Privy Council. She was the obvious choice for Matriarch.
Con studied the faces of his colleagues. They betrayed a range of emotions. He said quietly, “Dismissed.” Then, “Captain Lovelyn.” She stopped and, after the others had walked off, approached him tight-lipped.
Con baited, “You disagree with my politics.”
“You think I’m making a mistake by declaring myself so openly?”
He looked at the black gulls flying by. “Nonetheless, I’d still like you to take the lead tomorrow.”
She tried not to show her shock. “Yes, Sir.”
“Good night, Captain.”
“Good night, Sir.”
Best to keep your adversary in front of you where you can see her, he thought.
The next day, just past noon, after placating the Salish Harbor Commission with paperwork and gifts, the flotilla departed for home. The trip had been cut drastically short so the night was full of nonstop dockwork, frantic rescheduling, a torrent of outraged merchants—and little sleep.
The Thespians, Adeline the diva, and little Willow-Ember had all decided to stay. They had tours to complete.
Captain Lovelyn’s ship was quiet. The steam prop had been disengaged, the sails raised, the course set. The crew was at the ready but exhausted. She had two new officers, having swapped two of her own with Con.
“The insolent bastard,” she thought to herself. “Playing the martyr when he knows damn well that he’ll come out ahead no matter which way this plays out. Then putting me up front where he can keep an eye on me. I wouldn’t be surprised if one—or both!—of these officers of his are here to keep their ears open.” Lovelyn glanced off her port side at the Leo, riding about 200 meters back. She couldn’t tell if Con was in the shadowed wheelhouse or not.
In fact, at that moment, Con was in the crawlspace above the Leo’s keel, just aft of the engine, trying to avoid the greasy crankshaft and filling the air with billingsgate.
“Right here, Sir,” said his old friend and Chief Engineer, pointing a fan run tattooed hand with a flashlight in its grip. There was a crack the length of a person between two beams. Water was gurgling up in spots along it.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” Con commented. “Nothing we can’t fix once we’re home. The bilge pump is keeping up?”
“Yessir, but look here…and here.”
Con put on his reading glasses and leaned in. “What the…? That almost looks like—”
“Sabotage, Sir.” The crack had tiny, patterned wedge marks.
“But how…?” No one had reported any unusual sounds.
“And that’s not the worst of it, Sir. Look down there.” The Chief spotlighted a reflective speck another meter off, where the space became too tight to avoid the crankshaft.
Con wedged his way in there and shined his light on it. “What the hell is that!?”
“I think it’s attached from the outside, Sir.”
“All the way through!?” Another stream of invectives.
Suddenly it made sense. The helmsman had complained that the steering felt “mushy,” and two extra sails had to be raised to enable Leo to keep up with the rest of the flotilla.
“Something is attached to my ship and I want it off now!”
“Careful, Sir, it could have a flea-head. Pull it off and it’ll take a chunk of the Leo with it.”
It seemed like almost a lifetime since Con had dealt with anything like this. The peaceful years had made him soft.
To deal with it, Con used the excuse of a “training maneuver” to switch places with another ship and reposition the Leo to the back of the diamond formation. While the crew dropped sails and the ship slowed to a crawl, the Chief slipped overboard out a window of the captain’s quarters: crampons on his hands and feet, handsaw and wedge-iron on his belt, and a catgut air tube and safety line following him as he disappeared into the water. The two sailors assisting him in the cabin were sworn to silence.
The leech resembled a mechanical squid of some kind, its tentacles fouling up both the prop and the rudder. Thank Gaia there was no explosive component. The Chief was able to cut away most of it before the ship’s speed picked up and he could no longer hang on. The “head” of the monster remained firmly lodged in the hull. The sailors reeled him in. Other than a gash on the back of his left hand—and being half-drowned—he was fine.
Later, in the captain’s quarters, Con thanked him. “You know I can’t publicly acknowledge your sacrifice.”
The Chief looked him in the eye. “Con, you know I didn’t do it for an award. I did it because it had to be done.”
The bilge was flooding and the steam engine overheating by the time they pulled into the New Victory Harbor. Con radioed for assistance; the tugs took the Leo the rest of the way in.
“What’s wrong?” Lovelyn had asked over the radio.
“Nothin’ much. Just a little engine trouble,” Con responded coolly.
Things about town seemed to have calmed—for now. The word was that Galadrielle would be arriving shortly to give a live radio address at sundown. Whatever she had to say would surely stir things up again.
As Con limped down the gangplank, his name, high-pitched, rang out from amidst the bustle. He knew instantly the voice belonged to his niece, Genny, but was he seeing double? In identical floppy hats and homespun shifts, barefoot, and holding hands were two Gennys. They met him at the bottom of the plank, both wearing beaming smiles.
“Uncle Con! Look! You’re gonna have another niece!”
Ana looked up shyly from beneath her hat.
“This is Ana! She’s from the Texican Baja her family died so now we’re gonna be her family!”
Ivy came up behind the girls and moved them aside.
Con stepped off the plank and looked at his sister. She shrugged and smiled.
“You old softie.” Con winked at her.
“Old…!?” she began.
But Con was already leaning down and shaking hands with Ana. “Nice to meet you,” he said formally. “Would you like a captain-sized hug?”
Ana looked at Genny questioningly.
Genny answered for her, “Yeah!” and Con scooped them both into his arms.
© 2015 Jonathan Andreas