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The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
When I quit my day job in 1982 to embark on the career of a freelance writer, I drew up a little chart. I wrote down the names of all the extant SF zines and planned how often I would sell a story to each one. I figured that if I could place just one story per month among them, I'd have it made, earning about half the money I had been reaping as a programmer. Enough to live modesdy on.
Emboldened by Ray Bradbury's exhortation to fledgling writers to write a thousand words per day, thus composing one story per week, I figured I had plenty of room for learning-curve failures. Hell, only one story out of four had to be good enough to sell.
During the course of that first year, I wrote nearly fifty stories, lovingly assigning a number to each one (a tyro's practice that, I was recently pleased to learn, Robert Silverberg shared in the early years of his career). I amassed over a quarter of a million words of fiction.
And I didn't sell a single story.
Eventually, when my savings ran out, I had to get another day job. But I kept writing. And I must've gotten better at it, thanks to Bradbury's formula, since I finally did begin to place a story here and there.
But sell a story per month? Not even Robert Reed or Michael Swanwick or James Patrick Kelly—writers at the height of their craft—do that nowadays.
Wet behind the ears? I guess you could say that.
Once I began selling fiction, I turned back to the stories that hadn't sold. Now, in most cases, I could see why. But there was a single piece from the tail end of that run that seemed to have merit. Maybe it was different from the others because it was based on a template I had stolen from a master. Having read Melville's "Benito Cereno," I conceived of the notion of science-fictionalizing Herman Melville's sea saga. I shook the dust off "Anselmo Merino" and found it a home in a small-press zine, the late lamented New Pathways. If there was any money involved, I can't recall, but it couldn't have been much. Still, I felt proud to see this in print. Editor Michael Adkisson, wherever you are: thanks again!
being a true and accurate rendering of the encounter between the ships golden cockerel and melville, off encantada island, august 24th, 901 p.s.
All this happened many years ago.
For a period of my life, the events I am about to narrate—for the hundredth time, and yet, in a way, for the first— \dominated my thoughts. Then, for a brace of decades, they troubled me little, if at all. Now, however, in my retirement, as I sit in the high tower of my lonely house in Tirso Town, watching the sea by day and night, the strange and disturbing happenings that occupied barely twelve hours of my life recur vividly and portentously, as if fraught with more meaning than I can legitimately and consciously assign them.
So of them, at last, I will write.
I. We Sight the Distressed Ship
My vessel, the Melville, was anchored some hundred meters off Encantada Island, a crescent-shaped parcel of land claimed neither by the Union nor the Aristarchy, lying in mid-ocean between Ordesto and Carambriole, some five degrees below the Equator. From where my schooner rocked gently on the pellucid waters of the bay, I had an excellent view of a golden beach, and the Melville's cutter grounded there. Beyond the beach, in a dense wall, began the satinwood trees, their silver boles tall and bare of branches and foliage, save for a tuft of feathery green at the very top of each.
From the island drifted faintly to me the brittle hum of the lasers wielded by my men, and the intermittent thump of a tree striking the earth. In an hour or so, the trundlebots would emerge from the woods, each bearing the massy, lustrous heart of a satinwood tree, excised almost surgically by my trained foresters. The bots would load the logs into the cutter. From each tree we took a piece averaging four meters in length and a fraction of the tree's original diameter. Those shining, red-brown cores, cut into boards and finished to a moire-like sheen, would pay the costs of the entire voyage, with a handsome profit left for every crew member. Wasteful, in a way, to kill such splendid trees and use so little of them. Yet they did no good to the nonexistent inhabitants of Encantada Island, and we were careful to harvest judiciously, the trees being our livelihood.
This last load would fill the Melville's, hold, and we would then depart for our home port of Tirso Town, capital of the Transmontane Union.
The sun beamed down—very hot, but not cruel—as I stood at the rail, eyeing the land. I was grateful for the lack of clouds, knowing that the banks of faceted solarcells atop the fore and aft deckhouses would be gathering energy aplenty. Overhead, in the rigging of the Melville's twin masts, the sailbots scuttled like spiders, anticipatory of our leave-taking.
The allotted time passed. Breezes stroked my brow. On the sandy shore the trundlebots appeared, laden with Paean's bounty. The entire complement of the Melville—myself naturally excluded—followed: four foresters and my first mate, Runcie Belgrano. The robots deposited their loads and entered the cutter, followed by the men. The slim craft put off soundlessly, powered by its small electric motor. How often, when becalmed in the doldrums, had I wished the Melville herself might possess larger versions of such motors. But our solarcells could never accumulate enough energy to feed such brutes, and so, Paean being a world poor in fossil and radioactive fuels, we were forced to rely on wind and sun.
And not a bad pair to put one's faith in, for the most part, I always held.
The cutter arrowed across the calm surface of the sea. I began to discern more clearly the familiar faces of my crew, notably the fat, bristled cheeks of Belgrano. It struck me suddenly that contrary to all prior usage, the men did not gaze longingly on the Melville and her comforts, but beyond her, out to sea.
I turned with a sense of irrational foreboding.
I had often heard of a ship "limping" into port. Never had I fully appreciated the figure of speech until that moment, being a rather prosaic and unimaginative sort of man, not given to flights of fancy, nor extravagance in words or deeds. Yet the ship that approached us now, and which so riveted the attention of my men, did somehow evoke a human's sore-footed gait, crawling almost in fits and starts.
Like the Melville, the ship was a double-masted schooner forty or so meters in length, with clean and fluid lines. There, however, all resemblance ended. Where the Melville was trig and polished, scoured and caulked, this newcomer was in disrepair and foul shape. Her sails were in tatters, and devoid of bots. The solarcells atop her deckhouses were smashed, functioning as useless collectors of rainwater. I saw charred scorches on her rails, as if lightning or lasers had bitten there. Her whole aura was one of neglect and desuetude. No living figures did I mark on board, either.
Small wonder my men were so captivated, it was such an unexpected and disreputable sight.
The cutter had by now pulled alongside the Melville. I had in the instant made up my mind what to do regarding the uncanny ship, and so leaned over to shout my orders.
"All bots: Come aboard with the cargo and stow it. Jenckes, Topps, Allen, and Strathmore: You also disembark. Mate Belgrano and I shall visit this stranger. Hold yourselves ready should we need you in any way."
Each trundlebot, clasping a piece of satinwood with two of its arms, ascended the hanging netting up the ship's side using its other two limbs. They headed for the aft cargo hatch, where they would deposit the satinwood and then tap the flow from the solarcells. Jenckes, Topps, Allen, and Strathmore came aboard in their wake and made off to the galley, to refresh themselves after their work ashore.
I descended the netting, Mate Belgrano steadying the cutter against the Melville's flanks.
In the cutter, I received from Belgrano his usual deferential nod, which I had long since ceased attempting to dissuade him of. Years ago, when Belgrano had first shipped under me, that gesture had rankled, seeming not in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the Union as I conceived it; more the servile mark of acquiescence an Aristarch might demand. But after a time I realized it was only the old salt's way of acknowledging the trust he placed in my command. Although he had five years over my forty-nine at the time, he treated me as one incredibly superior to him, and I could not but be suitably flattered.
"So, Captain Sanspeur," he said in his hoarse growl, as he shoved off from the Melville before starting the motor up, "what do you make of this derelict? Think you we might find something worth salvaging?"
"Much remains to be seen," I said, as if I knew more than in fact I did. Actually, the appearance here of the lame vessel, so far off normal sea lanes, was an enigma to me.
Slowly, as if some unseen force impeded the cutter's progress, we approached the gaunt and haggard ship.
II. Aboard the Golden Cockerel, and Her Captain
As Belgrano steered in his assured way nearer and nearer the barely drifting ship, which seemed to have lost the current that had carried her so far, I scanned her bow, looking for her name. Several scores of meters away, I described the name in flaking red paint: Golden Cockerel. I knew then, from the style of lettering, that the ship hailed from the Aristarchy.
Why she neglected to fly that country's flag, I could not guess, unless it had been destroyed like her sails.
Also, at this distance I noticed the movement of figures on the ship's listing deck. So then: this was to be no salvage mission, but one of succor and rescue. I was grateful that the Melville held a surplus of food and fresh water (for I had replenished both on Encantada), with which to allav their sufferings.
Every minute our boat drew closer, I expected the rails to fill with the eager faces of the survivors I had glimpsed. The spaces at the starboard rail remained empty, however, as if no one noted or cared about our approach.
Finally we were bobbing close against the ship's battered hull. No ladder was in sight. Belgrano silently returned my gaze, as if to ask, "What next?"
"Drop the anchor, Master Belgrano," I said, and he heaved it overboard, paying out the line through his roughened hands. In the clear waters of the bay, we could watch our metal grapple sink for many a fathom, until it went where we could not follow.
"Ahoy, the Cockerel!" I shouted. "Toss us a line."
I expected no response from the incurious ship, and so started a bit when a thick hawser flew from nowhere and thwacked against the hull.
Old as Belgrano and I were, we still retained a spryness of limb many a younger man might envy. It was an easy task to ascend the rope.
Aboard the Cockerel, there was so much to see at first—and so many of the sights exceedingly jarring—that I hardly know now where to begin to describe what greeted my eyes. Let me start— arbitrarily, for I cannot recollect after so many years the exact order in which I apprehended things—with the ship herself.
I have mentioned the shattered solarcells and the charred woodwork, visible from afar. Fresh evidence of the Cockerel's sorry state was a scarred deck littered with trash: fruit peels, rags, empty bottles, several robot corpses, and, incredibly, pages from the ship's log. The aft deckhouse had several panels missing from its walls. Coils of rope lay in tangles.
Altogether, a most unholy mess. The skipper had to be dead—lost at sea—or insane for such a state to exist.
Simultaneously, I was taken with the figure of the man who had thrown us a line. A short and scrawny fellow, with a beak of a nose and a sharp chin, he wore a soiled knitted ecclesiastical shawl atop a ripped embroidered purple shirt. Purple pantaloons ballooned on his skinny legs. I recognized him as a Sanctus.
Five hundred years ago, the Aristarchy had colonized Paean. As their name implied, they had been severe critics of everything about their home world, including its religion. They had come to Paean, the first humans, to implement their curious and stringent beliefs. The Aristarchs brought with them underclasses to do their bidding. Their religicos bore the title of Sanctus.
On the continent of Carambriole, the Aristarchy flourished alone for two centuries. Then new settlers appeared in orbit, my ancestors among them, and claimed Ordesto, the eastern continent. From this second wave of colonists the Transmontane Union arose.
At the present, there was little commerce between our two cultures. Relations were marked by a coldness that stopped short of belligerence.
All this history mattered little to me at the time, in the face of the chaos around me.
Yet I include it here to indicate how my feelings of unease were compounded by facing this alien ambassador of a hidden land.
The withered man bobbed his head and torso, his hands clasped together in supplication. I gripped his shoulders and straightened him up.
"Stand erect, man," I said. "We're here to help, not plunder. I am Captain Josiah Sanspeur of the Melville, out of Tirso Town. I take it your ship is captainless."
His reedy voice sung out as if reciting liturgy. "Oh no, good sir, such is not our situation. We have a most fine and excellent captain, only occupied with pressing matters now is he. Our situation is more dire than mere loss of captain. You see—"
The head of the Sanctus had been constantly swiveling on his crane-like neck as he talked, while his pop-eyes stared here and there for I knew not what. His speech was cut short by the arrival of what he had obviously been fearing.
A Fanzoy walked into view.
The Fanzoii were the native race of Paean. They lived only on Carambriole. I had never seen one before.
Tall and willowy, the Fanzoy was clothed in a billowing off-white robe, sleeveless, with a square-cut yoke of intricate patterns. The Fanzoy's flesh could be observed on its arms and neck and bare feet, as well as its face. It was a subdued orange, like the color of a peach or burra-fruit, and had a velvety nap, not unappealing. The Fanzoy's lips were somewhat prehensile, its eyes a stunning violet.
It regarded us in what I took to be an unmenacing manner, yet the Sanctus was completely unnerved.
"I, I—" he faltered. Then, abandoning all pretense of calm, he turned and fled.
Belgrano and I watched him scurry off in amazement. With no human left to speak to, we approached the Fanzoy.
"Where is the captain?" I asked.
It eyed me stoically, curled its unnatural lip almost into a roll, and departed wordlessly. Had it even understood?
I decided to try the aft deckhouse, where traditionally, at least on Union ships, the captain's quarters would be.
At this point more Fanzoii, two or three dozen, appeared, seemingly springing up from the very planks. All were similarly hipless and possessed of deep amethyst eyes. I could not distinguish between sexes or individuals. Their velvet-flocked faces bore no obvious expression of ill will.
Yet they carried at their sides wooden dowels like clubs.
Belgrano and I hastened to the deckhouse, the Fanzoii following several paces behind, en masse. I confess my heart was racing a bit faster than was its wont. At the rear superstructure, the door hung closed on one hinge. I knocked, and also called out.
"Hallo, captain of the Cockerel! This is Captain Sanspeur of the Melville. Are you there?"
The Fanzoii ringed us at a small distance. I had no hint as to what their next move might be.
I heard the door opening. I swung about.
A man emerged, closely trailed by a Fanzoy.
"Back, you rabble," he called forcefully, gesturing languidly with one slim hand, which did much to mute the sternness of his command. "These are friends, not pirates. Can't you fools see anything? Get back to your duties."
At his words, the Fanzoii dispersed. However, ten or twelve took up sitting positions in a rubber-limbed fashion not far away, their truncheons resting across their laps.
Excerpted from The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2005 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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