The white heat of the sun and the constant clicking of cicadas faded.
From the high vantage point of the ancient war memorial’s long curving bench, Kale the Engineer looked out over the ruins of Perth, the residual heat in the fractured concrete easing the tension in her muscles. She looked beyond the river, beyond the marshland and the coastal plain, to the escarpment that ran from north to south like a great wall as far as she could see. Over the wall lay the desert, a vast red wasteland of saltpans and spinifex. Behind her, the ocean pinned the riverlands to the edge of the Australian continent.
Most evenings, between waking and breakfast, Kale walked the bluff of Kings Park and took her rest in front of the Old Citadel to watch the last light of the day paint the landscape. In the millennia since the ecological collapse, the hinterland had vanished, razed in the Cleansing Fires, overgrown and overrun by the coastal scrub, buried by the drifting dunes, but the heart of the city, a jagged rib cage of steel and concrete, still punctuated the marshes.
To the east, the baked red earth sloped away in a steepening scrubby drop to the river below. In the narrow channel, the ferry from Blackwall sailed in on the fading sea breeze, its deck stacked with goods for the monthly market. Rising like a figurehead, a passenger stood on the prow, indistinct in the shimmering haze, long white hair blustering in the wind, tall and upright, one hand gripping the forestay. The bearing left no doubt it was Alden the Shipwright. Kale allowed herself a smile. Months of messages and meetings between Alden and herself would culminate tonight.
The time has come, she thought. Tonight they choose life or death.
The ferry furled its mainsail, gliding past a fisherman casting a throw-net in wide silvery arcs on the shallow sand flats. Under foresail, she steered silently between the mussel farmer’s punts towards the quay. Kale got up and strolled along the dusty path to the broad steps that led down to the Millstream market. Low in the west, the sun edged the bush in burnt orange.
Each full moon the market came to the square in the shadow of the bluff. Traders were stringing bioluminescent lights from rigging in the trees and setting their oil burners under skewers of shellfish and crab. Kale crossed the cobbles, skirting the trestles and racks and cold lockers awaiting produce. The upriver ferry from Ashfield had docked and the crew and passengers were unloading sacks of seeds and nuts, bolts of linen, and jars of olive oil, stacking them on the quay. Kale pushed through to the Blackwall ferry and its cargo of salted fish and dried seaweed. Alden had just stepped off and was talking to the ferryman.
Years of sea and salt had given his skin the same dark, creased look as his worn sharkskin leather boots. Dressed in creased brown linen breeches, white shirt, and waistcoat, his hair now tied back, age had made him no less striking. He turned and saw her. His face didn’t crack the broad smile she’d come to expect.
“Kale.” He excused himself from his conversation, picked up a wicker basket, and walked over.
She smiled as she hugged him. “Are you well, Alden?”
“Well enough,” he answered before lowering his voice. “Are you prepared for tonight’s meeting?”
Kale’s smile disappeared. “I’m prepared.”
Alden held the basket towards Kale. “I’m concerned, Kale. Alienate us and we’ll never get another chance. Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure. It’s a fortuitous tragedy, a blessing, a sign.” Kale took the basket. “I’ll see you at the meeting.”
Alden nodded. “See you at three bells.”
Kale turned and made her way across the square and up the narrow lane that led to her dwelling in the hillside.
Each season the Guild Council met in the cloisters of the Old Citadel. The ancient grey-walled fortress, built from the bones of the city, now housed the Library and the Academy. Kale entered under the bell tower and made her way across the hard red-earth enclosure, basket at her side, greeting several of her acolytes as they went to study.
When not managing the river, Kale taught at the Academy, passing on the principles of ecology, biology, and genetics that ran the riverlands ecosystem; the principles set by her predecessors all the way back to the first Engineer, John Salt, and recorded in the great leather-bound Books of Guiding Principles. Lately she had spent a lot of time in the Library, trolling through millennia-old books and papers to augment the Principles of Evolution.
Kale passed through the vestibule and into a courtyard warmed by the desert easterly. In the centre, lit by flickering oil lamps hung from four flame trees, a long stone table and benches awaited the councilors, three from each of the five settlements. Kale was the first to arrive. She took the seat furthest from the head and waited.
As each councilor arrived, she greeted them and mentally tallied her votes. Alden smiled briefly when he came in but said nothing. Finally, Caren the Librarian arrived, took her place at the head, and welcomed them all. At three bells, she opened the meeting.
Business proceeded slowly, far too slowly for Kale, restless and too preoccupied to contribute to the debates. The training rotations were set, the barter rates amended for the coming winter crops, and a myriad of other small, and to Kale, inconsequential items decided. Four bells had sounded by the time they got to her item of business. Caren stood to speak.
“Engineer Kale has a motion to put before the council.” She paused and stared at Kale. “That the council divert resources and manpower to the construction of an oceangoing vessel. And that once complete, this vessel be used in the exploration of the north. The goal of this expedition is to find a new homeland.” Caren could barely keep the sneer from her face. The usual murmur went around the table.
Kale looked around and counted her votes again. One of the two other representatives from Millstream, Caren was a devout Gaian. To her the river was the cradle of life and John Salt its prophet. He had healed the river and the river in return would nurture his people, a symbiosis at the core of belief for every Gaian. No true Gaian would ever vote to abandon the river. Francis the Administrator aligned himself with Caren.
Ashfield, agrarian and the oldest settlement after Millstream, was devoutly Gaian and would vote no. She could count on Alden and the other two representatives from Blackwall. The aquaculture settlements, Deepwater and Freshwater, were the key. They had been hardest hit by the Black Summers and Kale felt it would be a conscience vote for them. If she could sway them, she would win.
“Those who wish to speak may do so after Engineer Kale has made her statement.” Caren indicated to Kale that she could now speak. Kale stood and looked slowly around the table.
“I’ve addressed the council a number of times in the past voicing my concerns over the viability of the settlements. I’ve talked at length about the possible genetic complications we face as a species: founder effect, genetic drift, and the population bottleneck caused by the first Black Summer. I’ve given assessments as to the ongoing effect of the Black Summer virus. Few here appear to take my words seriously. You need to.”
Kale reached down and took the cloth-wrapped bundle from the basket at her feet. She laid the bundle on the table and with trembling hands began to open it. The council was silent. Folding back the cloth like petals, she revealed a newborn, umbilical trailing across blue-marbled skin, tiny eyes closed, dead.
Gasps went around the table, hands clasped to mouths. Caren stood up and shouted, “Kale, you’ve gone too far. This is an outrage.”
A clamor rose from the table. Alden stood up.
“Let her talk.” His grave tone quieted the council.
Kale placed her hands on either side of the child to stop them shaking and leant forward, looking directly at each councilor in turn.
“Her name is Sanna; she was stillborn two days ago in Blackwall.”
Caren glared at Alden.
“One of two stillbirths this month. Our ratio of stillbirths to healthy is now two to one. In addition, our ratio of male to female children has risen over the years. Prescribed unions are no longer enough to ensure genetic variance. We are in terminal population decline; we no longer have a viable population.”
Kale slowly wrapped the body. No one took their eyes from it.
“We face extinction.”
In the muted and somber debate that followed, Caren and the Gaian faction argued that the system would heal itself, as it always had, that leaving the riverlands went against the teachings of the prophet, that they would always provide sanctuary. Alden spoke eloquently and forcefully on the need for change, that the status quo was their doom. Kale argued passionately and offered cold hard truths.
When Caren called for the final vote, it was closer than Kale expected, eight to seven in favour. Kale visibly wilted with relief as Alden hugged her.
After the meeting, Kale and Alden carried Sanna into the olive grove behind the citadel where John Salt had been buried. Alden had made arrangements earlier that night, and they found the newly dug grave in a quiet corner near the western wall. Silently, Kale unwrapped the body.
She and Alden had done this before. Alden had been her first prescribed union, when she was just fifteen and he twenty. Gentle and kind, he’d made their year together one of her happiest and she’d fallen pregnant almost immediately, but the boy had been stillborn and the duty of their second unions forced them apart. That was thirty years ago. Kale had a son in an unhappy second union while Alden now had two sons.
Kale laid the naked child in the grave and Alden covered it with earth. He planted an olive tree and watered the seedling from a clay pot.
“Was her mother Gaian?” Kale asked. When Alden nodded, she recited the Gaian burial rites, her eyes moist with tears.
From mother Earth you came, our seedling, And now She receives you back into Her womb. Your blood waters the thirsty soil, Your bones anchor the spreading roots,
Your flesh feeds the budding leaves. Reborn, your breath will be our life.
They stood in silence for a moment.
“How is her mother?” Kale wiped a tear from her cheek.
“Distressed but understanding, proud that her daughter lies with the prophet. She’ll come tomorrow to consecrate the tree.”
“Good, I’m glad,” said Kale.
They left the grove by the south gate and walked to the end of the bluff to watch the dawn. They sat at the war memorial.
“When will the boat be completed?”
“After winter. Early in the spring we should be able to leave,” answered Alden.
A dry winter came and went. In the stern of the Blackwall ferry, Kale looked back at the mussel farms and fish pens at the estuary edge. The ferry’s small bell rang and Kale looked forward. The cliffs of Blackwall came into view as the ferry rounded the last bend in the estuary before the ocean. The settlement straggled the top of the cliff and numerous ladders and platforms latticed the face. Around the pontoons at the base, punts, crab boats, and fishing dories bobbed on the incoming tide.
The ferry docked and Alden was there to greet her with a kiss.
“You look well, Alden. All this time at sea suits you.”
“It’s nice to be ashore again, at least for a short while.”
“So tell me, how was the last sea trial?”
“She’s a beautiful boat, Kale. We took her further north than we’ve ever been and she handled perfectly. We made a few adjustments to the trim and we’re ready to go.”
“Can I see her?” Kale tried to curb her excitement, but a winter of waiting made it difficult.
“Of course. Where are your things?”
They walked along the pontoon and up a ladder to a second level where a gangway led seaward. At the end, Alden pointed.
“There she is.”
The catamaran was like nothing Kale had seen before. Twin hardwood hulls supported a large canvas-covered cockpit at the stern, and amidships a cabin of polished metal reflected the sun. A single wooden mast, with white sails furled on the boom, rose from the cabin.
“She’s beautiful. Have you named her yet?” asked Kale.
“Success, after the first ship to enter this river.”
They climbed down a ladder and onto the dock where Success lay moored. Alden’s sons, Little Jim and Ben, both strong and agile youths, were busy clambering over the catamaran, making last-minute adjustments, stowing provisions and filling the water tanks from large glass bottles.
Alden showed her below into a sparse interior. Five hammocks slung between the uprights along the sides, a fixed table and benches in the middle, and a storeroom at the far end.
At the table sat a pale young man in a modest white robe. The council insisted they have an elected representative onboard and had selected Simon, Caren’s son, a Gaian who could be relied on to balance any reports on return.
“Welcome aboard, Kale. Nice to see you.” He extended his hand. Kale took it.
“Thank you, Simon.”
That afternoon they woke early. A small crowd gathered to wish them well before they slipped their moorings, headed out across the sandbar at the entrance, out past the inshore islands and limestone reefs, to set a course north.
The sky met the sea on a sword’s edge, blood black over steel blue, threatening a storm from the northwest. Alden took the decision and ran inshore on water like oiled glass, around the sheltering arm of Steep Point and into Shark Bay. Dusk settled as they navigated the sandbars and seagrass banks to anchor in a small bay protected by low dunes.
After a week at sea, Kale and Simon welcomed the break from the bouts of seasickness. Kale sat on the starboard hull, legs dangling over the side, watching a herd of barrel-chested dugongs graze in the shallow water. Simon came and sat next to her.
Kale nodded. “You?”
“Oh yes, the sea is definitely not in my blood.” He looked out across a green bay edged in white sand in front of ochre dunes. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“That it is . . . so tranquil, so perfect,” she answered.
“Beautiful enough to make you believe again?”
She turned and gave him a small smile. “Don’t start with me, Simon. I used to have these discussions with your mother. We were close when we were younger.”
“I know. And that’s all I’m doing . . . discussing.” He smiled back. “I’m my mother’s son, not my mother.” He paused for a while then continued. “She said you stopped believing after you lost your son in the first Black Summer. Is that true?”
Kale stared across the bay, unsure if she wanted to answer. Aden died at twelve, working with his father on his first rotation to Deepwater. A wet winter left stagnant pools throughout the marshes well into summer which brought mosquitoes in thick black clouds. And with the mosquitoes came the virus. In that summer, they lost half the population, almost a generation, mainly the young men and women working the river.
Kale sighed. “That he died, yes, that’s true. That I stopped believing in Gaia, no, I believe in the philosophy and the science.” She turned to Simon again. “Not the religion we turned it into, not the abjuration of responsibility for our lives. We turned John Salt into a prophet. He would have hated that. He was a pragmatist, not a prophet.”
“How can you say that? How can you be sure?”
“Why do you think John Salt built the citadel, cleared the land around it, brought in all the books and salvaged all the materials he could? Why do you think he gathered the willing, or at least the strong and sane among them?” Kale paused. “Was it because he had a vision of the Cleansing Fires to come?”
“That is the writing of it,” Simon said quietly.
“No, I don’t believe that. He did it because he knew he was going to light the fires. After the collapse, he slaughtered thousands of survivors to lessen the competition for resources. Did a little judicious genetic pruning, shall we say.”
Simon sat stony faced, just a slight tremble in his lips. “You have no proof of that. There is nothing in the writings.”
“No,” said Kale, “there isn’t. But it’s my belief and I have faith in my belief.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Because it’s what I would have done. Faith, Simon, just like yours.”
Simon stared back silently.
A few frantic splashes drew their attention to Little Jim’s struggle with a large stingray he’d just speared from the punt.
They weighed anchor at dawn after a meal of fish stew. Their regular sleeping patterns had been disrupted and now revolved around the watches rather than avoiding the sweltering heat of the day. The storm had passed by out at sea, now with only the occasional rainsquall to harass them. Kale and Simon sat in the cockpit as Ben steered them out between the sandbars. Kale nudged Simon and pointed.
A saltwater crocodile basked on the white sand, a sinuous, primeval scar three times as long as a man. Small birds darted among the graveyard of teeth in its open jaws, feeding on parasites and decaying flesh.
“I do thank Gaia that they don’t venture too far south,” Kale said.
In the third week, the coast faded into the horizon and they headed out over the continental shelf into the open ocean, sailing between two crumbling, ancient concrete monoliths, once gas platforms, their steel topsides long since gone, now home to thousands of seabirds. Kale turned to watch boobies and frigate birds wheel around their summits like living crowns. Alden came up to take his watch.
“What do you think we’ll find out there?” she asked Alden, indicating north with a nod.
Alden gave a small laugh. “You know me. We find what we find. I leave the speculation to you. What do you think we’ll find?”
“I don’t know,” she said, hesitating, unsure whether to continue. “I’m more worried about what we’ll find out about ourselves.”
“What do you mean?” Alden took the tiller from her.
“Speciation,” she said. “We may not be who we think we are. We may have changed in four thousand years.” Alden looked at her blankly.
“We may no longer be Homo sapiens.”
“I’ve never heard you mention this before.”
Kale shrugged. “It would only have added to an already uncertain situation with the council. And it’s not something we’ll ever know unless we meet humans, and only then if we breed with them.”
“Breed, that sounds oh so romantic.” Alden still looked a little confused.
Kale smiled. “We’ve been isolated for so long, John Salt had some rather unnatural selection methods, our original gene pool was pretty small. Throw in the Black Summer virus and potential mutations and, well . . . I just don’t know. It’s a possibility.”
“So all this, even if we find humans, may be a waste of time.” Alden’s face was now a little more serious.
“Now you see why I never mentioned it.” Kale gave Alden a little false smile. “Cheer up, it’s probably very unlikely. But let’s not burden the others with this.”
Landfall crept up on them at night, only the heavy sound of the rollers crashing into the reef saving them from running aground. At daybreak, the Javanese coast stretched verdant and lush below high mountains shrouded in grey clouds. The atmosphere hung heavy over them like a wet blanket. They sailed west, keeping careful watch for an anchorage. In mid afternoon, Ben spotted a wide sheltered bay at the mouth of a river.
They entered the river as rain fell in heavy drops, drumming hard on the catamaran and churning up the water. Kale stood on deck with the others and turned her face skywards, letting the warm water run into her mouth. In the early evening, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing mud banks and mangroves, and further upstream a dense rainforest. A mist of steam, full of the scent of warm wet earth and rotting vegetation, the breath of decay, drifted across the murky river.
The myriad sounds of unseen life punctuated the canopy. A large, colorful bird with a huge curved beak and a booming thump-thump call sat on an overhanging branch. As the catamaran navigated a bend, a troop of monkeys crashed their way through the trees screeching alarms.
To Kale, the land felt alien and oppressive, claustrophobic, her only point of reference the constant clicking of cicadas.
The riverbanks showed no sign of human habitation.
Success continued to sail west, each day seeking an anchorage for the night, searching for signs of occupation. They learnt not to anchor in the rivers where the dead air and viscous humidity and thick swarms of insects made sleeping impossible. A sickness kept Simon in his hammock most of the time, heavy sweats soaking his bedclothes. The rain that had once been a boon came every afternoon, solid and unrelenting, soaking everything, making it impossible to keep anything dry. The stores began to fester and rot, the stench fetid. After three weeks and no human signs, Alden took Kale aside.
“How long do we keep going?” he said, rubbing his arm to soothe a red mass of insect bites. Kale looked at him. His face was drawn and gaunt, his eyes dull and bloodshot, the corners lined.
“How long can we keep going?” she asked. Alden shook his head.
“I’m worried about Simon; he’s not improving. The food situation isn’t good and we’re getting further away from home. Honestly? A week. Maybe.”
“Two weeks, Alden. Give me two weeks.”
“I think that’s pushing it. We could have serious food problems on the voyage home, and as for Simon . . .”
“If Simon worsens, obviously we’ll go.”
“We can always come back, better prepared.” Alden didn’t sound convinced.
“You know that’s not true, the council won’t give us a second go at this.”
Alden studied her. She gave him a small smile. “Two weeks.”
Alden had just cleared the river entrance when Ben shouted.
Success had rounded a prominent headland three days previously and entered a large embayment. At the western extent, a volcano stood proud of the plain, and the mountains that had hugged the coast disappeared into the horizon. On a wide coastal plain, a broad river with sparsely treed grasslands on either side meandered towards the foothills.
The settlement looked deserted.
Alden, Kale, and Little Jim took the punt to shore, sliding up the muddy bank. Long bleached grass grew in and between the ruined buildings, small houses and huts, all charred and blackened.
“No one’s been here for a while,” said Alden, picking up a piece of timber and running his thumb across the charcoal, smearing the skin in soot.
“How long is a while?” asked Kale.
Alden shrugged. “A good few years. Fifty? A hundred? Who knows.”
They wandered about the settlement in silence, Kale barely able to conceal her disappointment in the only imprint of humanity they’d found. She absentmindedly searched the foundations, kicking over timber.
Kale looked to see Little Jim beckoning further up the shore. Two burnt-out canoes lay next to him like corpses. He pointed up the bank between the palm trees. Alden joined Kale and they tramped through the grass to where Little Jim stood. He pointed to a large circular patch of bare burnt earth. Scattered amongst the hard-packed ashes were several blackened bones. Kale stepped up the bank and pried a long bone from the ash.
“Human femur,” she said, “of a very tall individual.” She held it beside her, ball joint level with her hip. The bottom came to well below her knee.
“What does it mean?” said Little Jim. Alden silently asked the same question.
“I don’t know. Look around. See if you can find some more bones. Scavengers probably scattered them.” They searched the tall grass and found a number of other bones, including a male skull. Kale laid them out on the ground and stood up beside Alden.
“A giant,” said Alden looking at the skeleton, “half as tall again as me.”
“But thin.” Kale picked up the femur and ran her hand down the length. “Lightweight bones. Tall and thin. Adapted for the heat.”
“Again, what does it mean?” asked Alden.
“It means whoever they are, they’re different to us. Very different.”
Wrapped in a blanket, Simon sat in the cockpit with Alden and Kale, turning the skull over in his hands. The femur lay on the deck between them.
“Burnt. Why would someone burn a body?” The concept seemed to be anathema to Simon.
“I’m guessing this isn’t his home, none of the buildings were built for someone of his size. Unless he was a freak.” Alden looked at Kale quizzically.
“Or a new variety of Homo sapiens. Or a new species, Homo posterus shall we say . . . those that came after,” said Kale.
“Surely not,” said Simon. “In just a few thousand years?”
Kale shrugged. “We’ve produced dozens of new plant species with selective breeding. We altered our ecology to suit our needs. We could do that, our ecosystem is small and pretty much isolated. What if you couldn’t alter your environment? What if it was too vast, too exposed to outside influences? What do you do to survive? You adapt to your environment.”
“Are you saying he’s a product of selective breeding?”
“I’m saying it’s a possibility. Accelerated unnatural selection. The science is out there, waiting to be unearthed, interpreted. The result depends on how you use it.”
Alden took the skull from Simon. “Do we go on?”
“Well, I’ve seen enough,” said Simon.
“You promised me another week.” Kale’s eyes pleaded with Alden.
“That I did,” said Alden, starring the skull in the eyes. Kale didn’t think it a good time to mention the overly developed canine teeth.
Boom. Kale woke from a deep sleep and heard shouting on deck. Another thunderous boom reverberated through the cabin. She dropped from her hammock, the noise coming at regular intervals, and scrambled to the ladder and up onto the deck. The sun sliced at her eyes and she put a hand up to shield them.
“What’s happening?” she shouted. As her eyes adjusted, she saw Alden at the tiller looking over his shoulder. He turned towards her.
“Not sure. But it’s a ship.”
“A ship.” Simon came up from below, still a little shaky, and leant on the gunwale. Kale looked past Alden’s shoulder. Off the starboard quarter, a gleaming white ship fully five times the length of Success rounded the headland. As the ship turned with the wind, a huge rectangular white sail with a red sun dropped and billowed and strained against a single mast rising from the centre of the deck. A bank of thirty oars lifted and dropped and pulled, boom, lifted and dropped and pulled, boom, clawing the ship towards them to the rhythm of a drum.
“Do you think they’re hostile?” Kale asked, making her way to the stern. Simon joined her.
“Your guess is as good as mine, but they seem a little eager. That worries me. They must have seen us cross the strait.” That morning Success had crossed the Sunda Strait to Sumatra. Alden looked over his shoulder. “Well, this is what we came for, Kale. The moment of truth.”
Kale nodded and clasped her shaking hands together in a knot.
The rest of the crew was on deck, watching silently. Simon stood with his mouth open.
“Ready about,” Alden shouted to the crew. Kale looked at him. “I’d rather give them something to think about,” he said. “Rather run at them than be run down.”
With the crew in position he shouted, “Lee ho,” and pushed the tiller hard to port. Kale grabbed the stay and Simon held onto her. The boom swung across, the crew heaved on the sheets, and Success turned through to wind towards the white ship.
Alden checked his sails and gave an order to take the reefs out. He turned to Kale.
“Just to give us more speed if we need it,” he said, pushing the tiller to take Success to starboard, “and more room to maneuver.”
As the white ship pulled closer, they were able to make out more details. The bow and stern were higher than the rest of the ship. A figurehead of a trumpeting elephant was mounted on the prow, ears spread in a charge, tusks low to the water. On the deck above the figurehead stood three tall figures, white robes flowing in the wind. Kale couldn’t see the main deck, but more robed figures stood on the high stern, along with a huge man beating out the oarsmen’s rhythm on a carved drum.
As the ships drew alongside, the main deck came into view. More tall men—bare-chested, rich earth-brown skin scarred in fierce geometric welts—lined the gunwale. Behind them cowered fifty or sixty smaller brown-skinned men and women, hollow eyed and terrified. They knelt in groups of five, their necks gripped between two lengths of bamboo, hands bound behind their backs.
Kale gasped and stared.
“Abomination,” cried Simon, hand above his eyes to shield the sun.
“Survival of the fittest,” whispered Kale to herself, choking back tears.
The crew of the white ship, perhaps twenty of them, followed Success as she passed only a boat length away, walking slowly along the port side towards the stern, black eyes tracking them, scarred faces almost snarling.
“Well, they scare me,” said Alden.
As one, the white ship’s crew turned and shouted. Kale heard a huge splash on the far side of the ship.
“Someone’s overboard,” shouted Alden. “Kale, find them and keep pointing at them. Don’t lose sight of them.” As the ships passed stern to stern, Kale caught sight of five prisoners flailing in the water, the bamboo just keeping their heads above water. She pointed.
“Found them. What do we do?”
“We pick them up. Ready about,” shouted Alden. “Simon, tell me what the ship is doing.”
“They’re just watching us at the moment.”
“Lee ho,” shouted Alden. Success turned through the wind. Kale spun and kept pointing. Alden steered Success upwind of the prisoners.
“Jim, Ben, I’m going to heave to and drift onto them. We need to get them out of the water fast. Simon, how’s that ship doing?”
“The sail is down and it looks like they’re trying to come about.”
“Let’s hope it takes a while. Kale, you still got them?”
“Dead ahead a little to port.”
“Jim, Ben, get ready to get in the water to cut them loose.”
“She’s turning pretty quickly!” Simon screamed.
Alden turned Success into the wind and heaved to, coming almost to a dead stop, the prisoners only a few paces away. Jim and Ben jumped into the water and swam towards the struggling group.
“Kale, go and help them onboard.” Kale dropped onto the cargo net between the catamaran’s hulls at the stern. Jim and Ben had cut two loose from the poles and were making for the catamaran. One figure hung slack in the water, still tied to the poles.
“She’s through her turn,” Simon shouted. Alden looked up.
Boom-boom. The interval between beats shortened.
“Move everyone, they’re going to ram us. Simon, get them below.”
Kale helped two onboard, then another two. Jim and Ben cut the limp man loose and brought him back between them. Jim and Ben scrambled out of the water and helped Kale drag the limp body onto the netting, then leapt to crew the catamaran.
Kale looked up to see the great elephant charging towards them, walls of white wake foaming from its mouth, tusks set to tear through them. Alden swung the tiller hard while Ben pushed the mainsail across and Jim hauled on the sheet. Success shuddered as the wind filled her sails, achingly still until the mast creaked under the strain. Alden whispered to himself come on girl, come on girl as she slowly built momentum. She was still picking up speed as the white ship passed within a few arm spans of the stern. The rush of water, the sound of shouting and wailing, all to the deafening beat of the drums, pressed down on them.
Alden strained against the tiller, wrestling with too much sail. He never took his eye off the white ship as she tried to catch up, but what she had over Success in speed she lost in maneuverability. Success drew slowly away, tacking regularly, staying as close to the wind as they could. Within the hour, the sound of drums faded to nothing.
Kale sat next to Alden at the tiller, his arm around her shoulder. Alden had kept an easterly course until they made the Javanese coast, where a good amount of frantic gesturing and fast-paced incomprehensible language had convinced them that their guests did not want to be put ashore.
The two women and two men sat cross-legged on the fore deck, sharing a meal with Simon, Ben, and Little Jim. The fifth man had died, his skull cracked after seemingly catching an oar during the jump, and been buried at sea.
Kale studied the newcomers dressed in their long cloth skirts. Dark-haired and wiry with black eyes, they seemed in good spirits despite their obvious mistreatment.
“Not as you expected, eh?” said Alden.
“The people. Yes. As I’d hoped. The situation. No, not at all.”
“Are they what we need?”
“I don’t know. I wish it were an exact science. I think we have more of a chance now than before.”
“Did it ever occur to you that we don’t deserve a chance? Maybe we don’t deserve to survive.”
“Maybe,” Kale said, nuzzling under Alden’s arm. “Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t had our time, but like them—” Kale indicated forward, “—I’m not sure I’m ready to roll over and die just yet.”