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The Incredible Tide
By Alexander Key
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Alexander Key
All rights reserved.
The seabirds, Conan's only friends, aroused him at dawn by screaming and dropping pebbles on his hut. He crawled out eagerly and raced down to the narrow beach, sure that a school of fish had entered one of his tidal traps. The birds always called him like this when fish had been caught. But the traps, he soon found, were empty—and still the gulls and terns wheeled about him, making a great racket.
What were they trying to tell him?
He turned and ran up the steps to the highest point of his rocky islet, and climbed upon the stone platform he had built long ago. A quick look around showed only emptiness, save for the two smaller islets of the group, dim in the distance on either side. They bounded his world. Beyond them, and all around in the mist-haunted sea, nothing was visible, not even the horizon.
"What do you see, Tikki?" he asked, as a slender-winged tern circled close, giving quick little twitterings as if trying to speak. "Where is it? Show me!"
The tern brushed his lean cheek with its pinions, wheeled high, and shot away in the direction of the eastern islet. Several of the other birds followed. Conan watched until they were fading specks in the mist. Something was out there, surely, but it was far beyond the islet and invisible from here. A whale? No, a school of whales, most likely. Nothing else could cause such a stir among his friends. There wasn't anything else in existence that was big enough or unusual enough.
Or was there?
Conan gave a little shake of his tawny head and slumped down on the platform, hugging his knees in sudden misery. To judge from the evidence, there was very little left on the planet but water. As for people, if many remained after what had happened, most of them were probably castaways like himself. In the years since the last fleeing helicopter had crashed in that incredible tide, breaking apart and flinging him alone into the darkness, he hadn't seen or heard a craft of any kind, air or sea, nor had he even spotted so much as a vapor trail or a gleam of light. Was he the only person left? But of course he wasn't. He had proof that Lanna was safe....
His mind leaped back to his twelfth birthday, a point in time he couldn't forget because that was the day he had crawled ashore here. Before that—but it was better not to think of before. He had been Conan of Orme—but Orme no longer existed, nor did any of the Western world. Time started when he was twelve, when, chilled and battered and hardly conscious, he managed to crawl from the sea. He was just Conan then. Conan, a lost and naked creature all alone.
He remembered how horribly cold he felt later, and how hungry, and how it got worse as he huddled against the rocks, wondering what to do. And there wasn't anything he could do, because there was nothing here. Nothing. Not even a seabird.
How could you stay alive on a barren heap of rocks without food or water or clothes or fuel, or so much as a knife? You couldn't. To one who had lived always in the comfort of a world of electric buttons where machines did nearly everything, his predicament was utterly hopeless.
He knew he was going to die. And he would have, but for the voice that spoke to him.
"Conan," the voice said. "Are you blind?"
"No," he answered, before astonishment froze his tongue.
"Then get on your feet, Conan," the voice ordered, "and look around you. Use the intelligence you were given. You must grow and learn, for in time others will need your help."
He couldn't tell whether the voice came from somewhere near him, or was just in his mind. But it was a voice, startlingly real, and it suddenly made him think of Lanna's grandfather, who had surprised him once by saying that anyone who had the ears to listen could always hear the advice he needed.
He got unsteadily to his feet and peered about him.
The islet was new. It may have been the highest point of some rocky ridge, now drowned by the cataclysm that had changed the world. Or it may have been new land, upthrust. He couldn't tell. Nothing grew on it. Nothing. And the shallows around it were too new for shellfish or any sort of marine life. But when the tide went out he found long streamers of seaweed that must have been washed here from a great distance—and in a tidal pool he found a stranded fish.
Conan thought again of the wonderful flavor of that first raw fish. At the time he had no idea how easy it was to make cutting tools merely by smashing a rock, and he tore the fish apart with his teeth and his bare hands, relishing every bit of it. Even the juice was good—certainly it eased his thirst for a while. The seaweed was less satisfying, though he soon learned to like it, and later other and better kinds appeared and took root around the islet. Life here, he remembered, was suddenly a challenge. What had seemed utterly impossible was now possible—if he put all he had, all his wits and energies, into solving each of the problems facing him.
Conan glanced in the direction Tikki had flown, and decided that the whales—he was sure now that whales had been sighted—had gone away. Some of the birds were returning. He sighed and stood up, rubbing his calloused hands over his very lean and very hard body, and thought of what five years had done to himself and to the islet. Some of his earlier problems, like the cistern and the first small hut, had taken tremendous effort. Even so, those efforts seemed like nothing now. For as he grew—and he supposed he must have grown a lot—he'd been forced to even greater toil to rebuild the islet and save it from the battering sea.
Five years. And the voice, after speaking that once, had remained silent. There were moments when he almost doubted that he'd really heard it. Still, though the voice hadn't actually spoken again, a very curious thing had happened....
It was several weeks after he had finished the first hut. Though he had learned to use a drill and make fire, he was tougher now and seldom needed it for warmth. Fire, with driftwood so scarce, was better saved for those blacker nights that were so hard to face. For the one problem he couldn't solve was the awfulness of being alone. Entirely alone, and knowing there was no one left, anywhere, who cared about him. Not even Lanna, whom he missed the most.
It was worse that evening, he remembered. A rising wind drove him early into the hut, frightened by the knowledge that a storm was coming. As he struggled to get a fire going, Lanna and her birds were suddenly vivid in his mind. She was a quiet little birdlike person herself, with something about her no one else had—a sort of wisdom, maybe, or an understanding that went far beyond speech. Every wild creature knew it, birds especially. On the beach at home they always flocked to her whenever she called, and she'd taught some of them to do amazing things.
The storm that night was a horror. It brought back everything he wanted to forget, and it reminded him that he'd never see Lanna again. As he crouched by his fire, trembling and trying not to think, a terrible desolation swept over him. At that moment a monstrous sea battered the islet, and he couldn't help crying out in despair, calling on the voice to speak again and give him help.
The voice remained silent. But suddenly a gust of wind tore aside the curtain of kelp he'd woven for the doorway, and something small and white flew into the hut. It alighted near him by the fire.
It was a seabird—a tern.
He stared at it, incredulous. For an instant he almost believed that Lanna herself, in bird form, had flown here and found him. Then, as the tern moved closer and looked up at him, twittering plaintively as if it knew him, he suddenly caught it up in his hands and cried, "Tikki! It's you, Tikki! Lanna sent you!"
How he was able immediately to recognize Lanna's favorite bird, he didn't know. In the past he'd seldom been able to tell one tern from another. Yet, even before he found the silky band around one leg, made from a single pale hair from a familiar head, he was absolutely certain that the bird was Tikki, and that Lanna had sent it. For hadn't she always known how things were with him, and when he needed help?
He could almost hear her saying, "Go, Tikki, and find Conan. I know he's alive somewhere, and all alone. He needs you. Find him and stay with him."
After that night other birds, mainly gulls, began to arrive at the islet, and gradually he learned to call each of them by name and be counted as a friend. But Tikki's coming was the miracle that changed everything. Just knowing Lanna was alive somewhere, and thinking of him, would have been enough in itself. But it also meant that she must have reached the safe area that Teacher, her grandfather, had chosen long ago, and that others were there with her. As for himself—so he firmly believed at the time—he had only to stick it out here a few months, and a search craft was bound to come by and spot him.
A few months, Conan thought grimly. After nearly thirty months had gone by, with every day counted by a knot on a string he'd made, it began to dawn on him that people were having to start all over again, with practically nothing. Without power, most machines would be useless. And without materials and special tools, you couldn't build new ones. As for aircraft, how could you fly without fuel? Where would you find it? Still, with a person like Teacher to show you how ...
But suppose Teacher hadn't survived? The old man never thought of himself.
Conan shook his tawny-yellow hair back from his forehead, sighed, and stood up. He cast a final glance at the eastern islet, saw nothing in the mist beyond it, then started slowly down the steps. His attention went to a precious pile of driftwood he had been saving. The pile, carefully weighted down with rocks to protect it from storms, now consisted of four planks of various sizes, several scrap pieces, a long, crooked log, an old surfboard made of plastic—the most exciting find of the lot—and six small poles.
The problem was to construct a boat from the materials at hand. Not just any kind of boat, but a very special one. It must be large enough and strong enough to carry him safely for several weeks, along with a supply of smoked fish, and water in a collection of bottles that had washed ashore. For if no one was going to rescue him, it was about time that he rescued himself.
The only trouble was, he didn't know a thing about building a wooden boat. Not a thing. During the long war years, when he'd lived on the coast with Lanna's people, he'd been around boats enough. But all of them were plastic. He'd never seen a boat made entirely of wood.
Yet putting a wooden one together couldn't be too difficult. If the primitives had done it, practically without tools, then surely he could do it too.
Usually, as his first task of the day, Conan would circle the islet to see what the tide had brought him. But now, suddenly absorbed in the problem of the boat, he even forgot breakfast as he crouched by a clean-swept area of sand and began drawing plans on it with a sharpened stick. He did not notice that Tikki had returned until he heard the tern's sharp call overhead.
He glanced up, frowning. "Hey, what's the matter with you now?"
Tikki swooped close, giving little cries of alarm. The gulls began circling again, screaming. Conan straightened, then went bounding up the steps to the platform.
The sky was lighter now, and streaks of red and gold were gleaming in the east beyond the islet. In this misty corner of the world it was a rare sight to see even a hint of a sunrise. Conan drank it in, enthralled, until he realized this was not what Tikki wanted to show him.
His eyes probed the grayness beyond the islet. Was something moving out there?
Something was moving. It looked like a large vessel, a patrol craft of some sort.
For a moment shock held him rigid. Suddenly he began to tremble, then all at once he was racing down to the narrow beach, shouting and crying and waving his arms wildly.
He need not have worried about being passed unnoticed. The vessel was moving slowly in his direction, no doubt attracted by the many retaining walls which gave the islet a fortlike appearance. When it was only a few hundred yards from the beach it dropped anchor and swung into the tide. Now he was able to see it clearly for the first time.
Abruptly the excitement in him died. With widening eyes he studied the squat, gray shape with the crimson pennant that hung limply at the masthead. He swallowed, and a coldness began to creep over him. His own people had never produced such a ship or flown such a flag. But the enemy had.
He was looking at a very old and battered patrol craft of what had once been known as the Peace Union.
With the realization of what could be in store for him, Conan stood clenching his hands in sudden desperation, trying to decide what to do. Had he even guessed in time what was approaching, he might have attempted the long and dangerous swim to the western islet, and hidden behind one of the numerous rocks in the surrounding shoals. But it was too late for that now.
Ugly memories awoke in him. His jaws knotted. The Peace Union! It had gobbled up half the planet when he was a kid, and it was threatening to gobble the other half when catastrophe struck. He had supposed that the incredible tide that had drowned a continent had swept the Peace Union out of existence. But obviously there were survivors. And at least one of their older patrol craft.
What was it doing here? Charting the remaining land areas? His hands shook as he watched gray-clad figures in belted tunics lower a boat and start toward him. Vividly for an instant he saw again the people who had once mattered so much to him—his parents and his small sister, his grandparents and Lanna's parents, and his best friends at school—all destroyed in a flash by the weapons of the Peace Union. His fists clenched. Abruptly he raised them and started to scream his hate.
But no sound passed his lips.
"Conan," spoke the voice he had not heard for so long.
He whirled and stared about incredulously, seeing nothing. "Wha—what is it?" he managed to say.
"Calm yourself, Conan," the voice ordered. "It is time to leave. You have a mission to accomplish."
When the ship's boat touched the beach in front of him, Conan was standing motionless with folded arms, outwardly calm. Only his narrowed gray eyes showed the storm within him.
Three men and a woman, all dressed alike in baggy trousers and shapeless tunics, stepped to the beach. The woman, gaunt, gray-haired, and hard-featured, was carrying what seemed to be a medical kit. She was talking even as she left the boat.
"Look at him!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe it! The picture of health. You there, how long have you been here? Or do you understand me?"
Conan realized she must be the ship's doctor, and that the bearded man beside her was probably one of the officers.
"I—I understand you," he replied haltingly. "Your language was taught to me in school. I've been here since—since the waters rose."
"Ah, a Westerner, eh? And you've been here since the Change? All alone?"
"Not alone. I have friends."
"Friends?" snapped the man beside her, whose beard was the heaviest of the three. "What friends? Where are they?"
"Overhead," Conan told him. "The birds."
Everyone stared at the flock of screaming seabirds wheeling angrily above them.
"Noisy pests!" muttered the woman. "What's got into them?"
"They don't like you. They know how I feel about you."
"Eh?" growled the man. "What d'you mean? Aren't you even thankful that you're being rescued?"
"Should I be?"
"This is no time to be stupidly insolent! Where is your gratitude? If you ever hope to become a citizen of the New Order—"
"The New Order?" Conan interrupted. "Is that another name for the Peace Union?"
"Certainly not! All the survivors of the Change are being reorganized under our banner. The world must be rebuilt. It will take every able-bodied person to do it."
The man with the heavy beard paused and glanced curiously about the islet. He scowled at Conan. "Now, I want the truth," he demanded. "You haven't lived here since the Change—not all alone. That's impossible."
Excerpted from The Incredible Tide by Alexander Key. Copyright © 1970 Alexander Key. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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