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The Human Harvest
Hoo! To a human's nose, it's other humans that make the worst smells. Little Tom leaned into the rail on the aft deck, as far upwind as a body could get without being trolling bait.
His eyes were red rimmed and his face dark from lack of sleep. Below deck, even with the superior ventilation of the master's cabin, the stench was just too close. For the last four nights he had slung a hammock topside and threatened the crew with a de-balling if he were disturbed. Still he slept fitfully in the cool nights, the hammock swinging in its exaggerated arc up here. His neck and shoulders were stiff.
Ach. Human reek was a haunting booger.
Now in the bright of morning, a strong breeze at his back and sipping coffee, Little Tom could at least admire his new sailing yacht, the Lucia, named after the mother he had never known. The Lucia was a handsome and odd sea beast. For a 140-footer, it was unusually broad beamed, thirty feet, and had a draft of nothing but six feet with the centerboard up. She was a bitch for any man to helm—was only for the sharpest of captains—but there was nothing afloat that could escape her hit-and-runs or catch her after the fact.
The Lucia was full sail now, 20,000 square feet of blinding white canvas bulging like the throat of an albino bullfrog. They would be home quickly, praise God, within two days. Father, Big Tom, would be at ease again with his skimming new creation in harbor. And he would be pig-grin pleased at the cargo of three-dozen red-leggers.
Little Tom sipped at the coffee and did the math in his head ... nearly 325,000 centimes! Why, after a few more runs, in a year maybe, Big Tom might entrust him with the entire fleet. Commander, trade master of the Caribbean, twenty vessels harvesting the troublesome red-leggers off the Blue Islands. He would be powerful, one day, even more feared than Big Tom himself.
Oh. He had almost forgotten: Had the one red-legger died in the night—the one with the head injury, the one that went to fever the other night? He would have to ask. He refigured the bounty—still a nice haul. Too bad about the injured one, strong and handsome, might have brought a bonus. The first mate Bark had joked that the dying pig-poker looked a lot like Little Tom. Ha, there but for the grace of God....
The sea was rough enough that Little Tom had to roll out of the hammock before he was tossed out. His bare feet squeaked in the damp of the polished deck wood, and he sniffed the impossibly moist morning air. The low sun was hardly penetrating a blustery sky, an overcast like Little Tom had not seen in months.
Damn. Half a day out of home and we're going to storm.
In the master's cabin, he folded and drawered his night-clothes. Down here the lolling of the Lucia was more tolerable. Still ... he padded naked to the horseshoe-shaped desk, which arced in a grandiose sweep across the forward end of the cabin. He slid open a brass latch, pulled out the top drawer, and flipped open a black-enameled cigarette box bearing his name in gold paint. He selected a fat one, fired it, and sucked the smoke into his lungs as he rubbed his neck.
It was powerful ganja, and within moments he felt the cooling ease seep through his limbs. He felt better.
Little Tom had left the cabin door open for better ventilation, and there was Bark—staring in disapprovingly.
"Helps with the nausea," Little Tom said, holding the cigarette aloft. As he spoke he exhaled a fragrant cloud.
"Storm's blowin' up," Bark grumbled. "Ya'd best tell yer tum-tum it'll be getting nothin' but worse."
Little Tom drew off the cigarette again and choked out his words as he held the smoke in: "I can swing-swang with the best of 'em. It's the red-leggers. That reek."
Bark twitched his nose, shrugged, and looked quizzically at the ceiling, as if to say, What reek?
"I tell ya, I nearly can taste it, a scum in my gut," Little Tom said. In his blooming euphoria, he had nearly forgotten his nakedness. He glared down at himself in mock surprise, then pulled on a pair of full-length khakis in anticipation of a cool day. The cigarette smoldering between his lips was developing a precarious ash.
The first mate turned to go, but Little Tom stopped him with "Ho, up!"
"There's a red-legger, down ta slot twenty or so. A girl, slender, shaved head. In the slot right beside the guy with the gawdawful tattoo, the man with the head crack. She's pretty...."
"Ya, so?" Bark felt an ill mood descending like a shroud. He had mated for Big Tom since he was this age, and the old man had always insisted: No ganja by day, and no sampling the merchandise. Bark was stalling. He wiped his nostrils with thumb and forefinger, then ran them through his graying beard. He would wait, make the boy say it.
Little Tom sucked the diminishing cigarette again. "Bring her here. Please. In ankle irons, so she won't try much."
Bark spat—an offense that would earn him a flogging had Big Tom witnessed it. But this little whip wouldn't dare. "Okay," he said. "But the injured one. One with the crack—weren't you wondering?"
"Oh. Yes, how is he?"
"If we can get underway today, I figure he'll make it to port. But not by much."
"Ah, good," Little Tom replied. "We'll be underway soon, then. I'd be skinny to make port with a vacant slot, no?"
Bark turned away toward the slot holds, but scowled back over his shoulder, not so sure about getting underway in this weather.
Little Tom was sprawled on the master's bunk, his hairless chest bare as he stared at the ceiling. He heard her enter, the sound of chain dragging against flooring. "Hmn," he said, rolling his head to the side, and then he considered how her looks had changed since she was captured ten days ago. Shackles never did much for human beauty—the eyes grew dark circles, the skin drained pale. The longer a red-legger stayed in the hold the worse the damage—and the lower the price at market. Longer expeditions were impractical, a matter of diminishing returns. Not unlike shipping vegetables, he mused.
"You gully English?" he asked. "Ya don' look to be a Northland runner."
The woman said nothing. Her hair had grown to a quarter inch of stubble, and she squinted now into the glare of the cabin's lavish portholes.
He tried again. "Bark. Big man, Bark, the mate, where is he?"
This she seemed to understand—they all knew the big one with the easy name, Bark. She gestured vaguely toward the door and then upward.
Little Tom swung his feet over the bunk's side and stood. His chest felt full and invigorated. In his pants there was a stirring of anticipation he would soon satisfy, but first ... he bounded to the door and up the ladder and thrust his torso through the hatch.
"Ho, mate! Bark!"
"Ya, captain?" Bark had been in conversation with the navigator, a palsied old crust, apparently about the rising weather—they were in very familiar seas now, and charting would not be a concern.
"Are ya ready to set sail, mate?" Little Tom asked.
A snarl twisted Bark's bushy upper lip and then vanished just as quickly. He motioned for the navigator to follow him from the backboard rail to the hatch—to hear their young leader's foolishness. A witness.
"Captain ..." Bark let the word fall somewhere between respect and sarcasm. "Captain, I say we stay at anchor for the blow-over. We'll lose not but half a day, sir."
Little Tom felt his gut tighten and his face harden. Slowly he placed his left fist on the deck in front of him, near the sailors' knotty bare feet. "Bark," he said evenly, calculated to sound near-bursting with fury, "I want all sails set now, all sails. Anchor up inside of fifteen."
"Ya, Little Tom," the creaky navigator said. "Full sail inside of fifteen." The old man pulled at Bark's elbow and they strode away to bellow their orders into the rising wind.
Little Tom backed down the ladder and returned to his cabin. The young woman was hunched over the wash basin, timidly admiring a round porcelain water jug mounted on the wall with a teeter hinge. She ran a forefinger over its pearl-like smoothness and studied the hinge and clamp around the jug's stem neck. She seemed unsure how the mechanism worked, but certain the vessel contained that most precious of substances, fresh water.
A floorboard creaked under Little Tom's feet, and the bristle-haired woman leapt back, gasping, "Oh, gawd!"
Little Tom laughed. "Now we do have some English there, don' we?" She didn't answer, but backed away from him until she stumbled into the bunk. She gasped again, seeming to fear her hands might have soiled the sheets.
"It's okay," Little Tom said, murmuring in the tone he would use to soothe a jittery horse. "It's a water jug, and we'll have a sip here, wash your face. Here."
He walked calmly to the basin and grabbed the jug by its neck. "You don't have to take it off the wall at all. Just tilt it up, like this...." He cupped his left palm and splashed it full, then held the dripping hand up for her to see. "Here. C'mon. Here."
Her eyes widened and her dried lips parted to emit a sticky clucking sound. Instinctively she stepped forward, then stopped, suspicious. Her yellow-glazed eyes met Little Tom's, then she shrugged—what the hell. Nervously, she tipped the jug, threw the water at her face and open mouth, and returned her hand again and again in a series of splashes. Her T-shirt and cutoff trousers were blotched dark now, and rivulets of water cut clean, pink lines down her grimy legs and pooled at her feet.
Little Tom grinned broadly as he watched the impromptu shower. All around them the yacht was creaking alive as the sails were hoisted, and that, too, lifted his spirits. A sailboat lolling at anchor had a groaning lethargy about it. But now ... ah, now with the sails filling, the sheets grown taut, the mast empowered, the timbers shifting into the tension they were designed for—it was not unlike a sexual awakening.
The pig-pokin' runt. Shouldn'ta be allowed in a bathtub alone, nary less captain a sea skimmer like this 'un. Huhn. Smoke-head. Dancin' on his willie below decks while we put sail into a storm. Hoo. Pig-pokin' runt....
Bark had worked through his anger enough to be functional, and now he was carrying out the orders to the letter. The low, dark hump of Dunkin Island nearby appeared and vanished again in the mists. Here and there the roiling clouds parted to show whisps of dull blue sky—maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. And home soon. He softened more. Home soon—Ma and the little ruggers, a good sousin' tonight.
"Har, ya there, up anchor," he shouted to the two decksmen that weren't manning the sheets. At once they were abreast of the aft winch, cranking the metal muscle furiously. The sails were cracking in the bluster and the Lucia's entire structure murmured. The deck shifted with abrupt jolts.
Bark cursed and looked to the sky again, then southwest out to sea. And he froze, first not comprehending, then disbelieving. Fear gripped an icy claw around his heart. He about-faced, filled his lungs to the bursting point, and screamed, "Drop sail! Drop saaaail!"
The ancient navigator, mid-deck by the wheel, whipped around thinking he could not have heard right. He looked beyond the wild-eyed, howling first mate and saw for himself. His toothless jaw dropped open.
A gust of wind may be fairly invisible, but it colors the water with fine, dark rippling. It tears across the sea looking like a giant school of fish, dotting the surface the way an impressionist painter stipples a canvas. An alert sailor can easily adjust to meet such a burst of wind with the proper angling or sailset.
But this was not a normal gust. It was a killer squall blown from the gut of Satan himself. It was upon them, dragging the sea like Death's coattail.
Later, Bark would remember the next two seconds with slow-motion clarity. One of the main sheets, a hemp rope the thickness of a man's wrist, snapped like twine. The freed sail corner whipped that halyard across the deck, neatly slicing through the navigator's midsection. Still agape, the old navigator fell in two, torso splashing to the deck and legs and pelvis standing, then wobbling onto the knees, then sliding into the backboard rail as the yacht careened onto its side.
The hollow-center, steel-reinforced mast snapped without protest, and the sails, some of them one-eighth inch thick, fluttered onto the water like tissue paper.
Bark was airborne, catapulted by the Lucia's twisting deck. Then he was under water, his back wrenched by the impact. He clawed at the foam and murk, inhaled in pain and gagged on the salt water. Bark flailed again, broke surface this time and bit the air. Coughed, spat. Breathed.
The Lucia was still listing perilously. As Bark watched he heard, amid the wind blast and human cries, a dark rumbling in the yacht's hull. He knew—he could almost see it. Her ballast, a slender mound of lead bars, had shifted and broken out of their bins. Now, even with the wind dying, the Lucia could not right herself again. Most likely, the lead bars had pounded a hole in her hull, and she would be taking on water now.
Bark peeled off his trousers slowly, mindful of a newly pulled muscle throbbing in the small of his back. He tied a knot at each cuff, blew several lungsful of air into the waist end of the pants, and tied it shut with his rope belt. The makeshift float would help for a few minutes, anyway.
The first mate looked again. Yes, the Lucia was sinking, her backboard rail mostly under water. He wondered what it would be like to be below deck right now, wearing leg irons.CHAPTER 2
"What we really need is a very large ship."
Rosenthal Webb's words boomed over the chatter in the Revolutionary Council meeting room. The other conversations withered. Surprised faces turned toward the old warrior. Virginia Quale was standing at the front of the room where she had tacked up a map of Merqua's eastern sectors (from New Chicago to the coast, for the most part). Her hand dropped away from the map, and her lips pressed into an impatient corrugated circle.
"I was attempting a discussion of rail lines, Mr. Webb," she said. "The tracks what you and your boys were detonating just a year ago must be laid new now if we're to have sufficient supply lines."
As was his habit, Webb drummed the four finger nubs of his right hand against the dark polish of the conference table. He repeated himself: "But what we really need is a large ship. Ta cross the Big Ocean. It's been our policy long-standing that we would assess what has become of the other continents if we ever came free of the Monitor."
Winston Weet thrust his round face out over the table to interject. He waved a hand toward the map. "The Monitor's nay dead but a few months," he said, jowls waggling. "There's a mountain of arrangements to be made before we dare announce our new ... uh, proprietorship of Merqua."
"And priorities," said Eliot Kohrn, the dark-eyed man to Webb's left. Kohrn rarely spoke up in the large council meetings, but felt more comfortable as long as he did not have to compete with the babble of three or four people at a time. "Shouldn't we repair our homeland afore we off an' tip-toe through some foreign radiation fields? There are the work camps to set to voluntary, no? The timber camps, hmm? The farm camps? Slavers to scuttle?"
Webb fell back against his chair impatiently, pushing a long sigh out his nostrils. His skin flushed red, giving an odd glow to the tendril of a fresh tattoo that wound around his neck. He said no more.
Quale looked uneasy. "Um, Winston, I gully you have a report on our infiltration of management in New Chicago? Would you give the briefing now, please?"
Winston Weet obediently rattled open a folder of papers as Quale strode to the hatch leading into the hallway. Before disappearing through the small door, she stared in Webb's direction, arching her eyebrows. The aging Revolutionary caught the signal, pushed away from the conference table, and limped out after her.
The black-lacquered piping against the hallway ceiling gave just enough clearance to allow Webb to stand erect. But he hunched down anyway, looking like a schoolboy about to be punished.
Knowing the direction that the conversation would take, Webb started in himself: "Well, I never did pretend to be a detail man—sit there an' plant railroad ties or whatever."
Quale did not look perturbed now, just concerned. "Rose, there is much to do yet," she said. "How can we justify the expense of commissioning an ocean craft—even if there were a builder what knew how? There are boat builders here and there, ya, but none that's made a ship like that. Not since the ancients self-destructed."
Excerpted from The Dream Vessel by Jeff Bredenberg. Copyright © 1992 Jeff Bredenberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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