“Mister Rollings, Mister Reshetnyk, before you go, I’d like a word with you both in my cabin,” Halleck said. “Don’t worry, the boat won’t leave without you.”
Halleck shut the door and turned to face them. “You are the first scholar-sailors to go ashore, and I think you should know why. One, I know you’ve got each other’s backs and you’re capable of staying focused on the mission. Two, in related news”—he winced at his habitual back-before reference—“you’re the only sailor-scholars I haven’t had to bail out of jail, rescue from a mob, or sober up after a shore leave. We’re a long way from home and something doesn’t feel right about this whole setup. Three—and mainly—you both look much younger and dumber than you really are, which may help them get careless about whatever they don’t want you to see.”
Whorf said, “Yes, sir. Is there anything we should be looking for?”
“Whatever they’re hiding. If I already knew, this wouldn’t be the conversation we’re having. Maybe I’m just bitter about the fact that this place looks so unscathed; I’m from Maine myself, and all my people and everything I remember are pretty well lost forever. I might just feel like nobody’s entitled to be that lucky, so there must be corruption or evil at the bottom of it.”
“What’s their story, sir?” Ihor asked.
“Well, according to the harbormaster, Mister Quintana, for more than a week after the North Sea superbomb, the east wind held enough to keep the Dead-Zone level fallout over mainland Spain, but not strong enough to pull much in from the stream that flowed through Provence down to Sicily, so although they had quite a bit of radiation poisoning later and many deaths, it didn’t disrupt or destroy much infrastructure. Now, that part, I believe; it’s consistent with the radiosodium and tritium that the reconnaissance planes picked up, when we had them. Then he says the town government decided not to set up a radio transmitter until their defenses were in better shape, so they were still in listen-only mode when the EMP-bombs came down, and they didn’t get hit with any up close; the nearest one to them was that one over Ireland in the spring.
“And then there’s the one that sounds really hokey. He says they were lucky that almost all the tourists and retirees found passage on sailboats back to the mainland, so they didn’t have too many mouths to feed.”
“That don’t—doesn’t seem lucky to me,” Ihor said. “Look at Christiansted, they were very lucky to get off-islanders like Henry or retirees like Captain Highbotham trapped there.”
“Yeah,” Halleck had said. “Something is not right with their definition of ‘lucky.’ I want to know what. Also, Quintana said it would be fine if I just gave leave to the whole ship’s company and let them go exploring for a couple of days. Very casually, as if it were a matter of course that we would want to and they wouldn’t mind having us.”
“Maybe we all have honest faces, Captain,” Whorf said.
Halleck laughed. “Well, that’s part of why I’m sending you two. Hide behind your honest faces, find the story we haven’t heard, and bring it back. And yourselves. Especially, and yourselves. Have as good a time as you can, but come back knowing what they’re hiding. Good luck.”
Rowing to shore was a matter of a few minutes; a local militia officer waved them through without bothering to do more than look closely at them once.
Ma? was quintessentially a Mediterranean seaside town. Whorf guessed that he’d seen these sun-washed and stuccoed buildings, probably during his Euromovie phase, behind couples holding hands and babbling, or pouting girls walking away from flailing guys, below the barrel-tiled roofs and just above the subtitles. Despite the captain’s premonitions, he was delighted to spend a fine warm spring day walking along the crumbling asphalt streets between the blocky white and tan stores and houses, occasionally interrupted by older columned, gingerbreadish villas. Ma? was warm, clean, sunny, and
Now, after an hour of walking the winding streets of Ma?, they had seen most of the city, physically, but not talked to anyone. Whorf asked, “Do you suppose the real secret is that the place is even duller than it looks?”
Ihor said, “It’s just a town, you know? We were spoiled rotten by Christiansted and Gib, I think. Do we want to climb this hill for the view of the whole port? Such as it is, of course.”
“Something to do, anyway. But I was just about to ask if your knack for languages would be up to bartering for a fish sandwich.” Whorf nodded toward the only open booth on the street, whose sign offered
SANDWICH DES POISSONS—PAIN—CONFITURE
BOCADILLO DE LOS PESCADOS—PAN—MERMELADA
SANDWICH DEI PESCI—PANE—OSTRUZIONE
Noticing their gaze, the lady behind the cart waved and smiled shyly, the first real greeting they’d had since getting off
“It looks like there will be language we communicate in,” Ihor said, “but I would like to start in Catalan.”
Ihor always said that part of his supposed linguistic gift was just that he was fearless about mispronouncing things and accosting strangers. He stepped up to the booth with a confidence Whorf could only envy and said,
The woman’s smile was quick and welcoming; she spoke quickly and eagerly. After a moment, Ihor translated. “The bread is fresh from the oven this morning, the cheese she bought at a farm on her way to town, the fish she got off the boat an hour ago, and her grill is ready to go. And, get this, with fresh mayo she made this morning. She says they invented it here, it’s the only real mayonnaise in the world.”
“Now, that’s a sales pitch.”
“She says she loves silver, takes it all the time, but she’ll want to weigh ours; her prices are in grams.”
Ihor and the woman negotiated as they played around with an old postal scale, vociferously but both obviously having fun, before settling on three ship’s dimes.
Trying to invent money that was spendable anywhere, the planners at Athens had coined silver into the traditional American denominations from 10 cents up to 10 dollars; they each were issued 2 dollars in silver for a day’s shore leave. “You didn’t push her too hard?” Whorf asked.
“He is very fair,” she said, in perfect, lightly accented English. “But if you want to tip, you could add one more dime.”
Ihor shook his head sadly. “And that means we’re back to the original price. Whorf, I love you like a brother but I am going to have to gag you every time I’m talking money.”
The woman grinned. “Bring him along anytime. I am Ruth. Let me show you that the sandwiches are up to the price.”
They were: the bread was fine-grained, dark, and chewy; the fish, onions, and peppers fresh; the thick slabs of tomato firm but juicy; the cheese soft and sticky but pleasantly sharp; the mayonnaise thick, creamy, and indisputably real.
“That was the best first-thing-off-the-ship food I’ve ever had,” Whorf declared, shaking her hand.
“It will even be good when you’ve been here a month.” Ruth smiled warmly; Whorf decided not to point out that this was a one-week-at-most visit.
They started up the road toward the tall hill west of town. As they ascended, the vivid hundred-shades-of-blue of Fornelis Bay, and the deep green of the trees around it, drew the eye away from everything man-made, so that the modern town and the medieval and Roman ruins near it all faded together. But the top of the hill revealed only what they had already known: Ma? was unsacked, unburned, and apparently content to have life go on. In the surrounding countryside there were brown, blue, and gray streams of woodsmoke from some chimneys. Between the stone walls, crops grew in neat rows and plots, and sheep, goats, and horses stood in fields; in the sea beyond, dozens of fishing boats were out working. “Like someone asked for a painting in the style of Mediterranean Dull,” Whorf said. “Well, whatever the big secret that Captain Halleck wants us to find might be, apparently we can’t see it from this hill. Let’s go back down and see if we can get into more conversations.”
“Thanks to the tip we gave Ruth,” Ihor said, “I betcha many, many people will want to talk to us.”
The descent, facing the harbor, was also pretty in a conventional way, but they hurried. “I really want to know, too, what the secret of this place is,” Ihor said. “Maybe because I really want to be the one that finds it out for Captain Halleck. Funny how a request from him makes me try harder than my uncle yelling at me. I don’t want to come back not knowing nothing.”
“Anything. Yeah, Halleck’s got that same make-you-want-to trick my Pops does. I think they issue it to some old guys on their fortieth birthday or something.”
Back in town, they realized that an hour and a half of going up and forty minutes of coming down had left them hungry again. “I suppose we could go looking for other food,” Whorf said, “but let’s see if Ruth’s still open. I could definitely see another one of those sandwiches.”
“Adding ‘definitely see’ for ‘am in favor of’ to my English idioms,” Ihor said, “and right with you.”
They had come down a different road from the one they had climbed. In the tangle of narrow streets it took a little time for them to find Ruth’s booth again. Three large, muscular men were talking to her.
Their hair was long, worn in loose ponytails, and their beards were full but trimmed. Their baggy pirate pantaloons, tied with twine at the mid-calf cuffs, and their loose, long-sleeved canvas T-shirts were adorned, on every side they could see, with a sewn-on yellow circle-and-eight-wavy-rays sun. Their boots were heavy leather soles attached to long knit socks that continued up under their pantaloons.
“Like very clean tribals,” Ihor muttered.
“What I was thinking,” Whorf murmured. They stepped a little wide of each other, to free up space in case of trouble but keep close in case of real trouble, and approached slowly; the large men right in front of Ruth blocked her view of them.
As they drew near, one of the men shouted,
Ihor sped up into a fast, silent trot, and Whorf kept pace. Ihor prison-muttered, “He said ‘Give us all your food and money, or we’ll cut off your something.’ Sounds like a robbery.”
Whorf was about to urge caution—maybe the guy was just quoting some old book or something—when the three big men turned around as one, and fanned out slightly. At a scuffing sound behind him, Whorf glanced back.
Four men in the same clothes were closing in behind them. Ihor’s eyes met his. Whorf said, “Go right, get our backs to that wall.”
They did; Whorf drew the short flail from between his shoulders and Ihor slid the knives from his sleeve-sheaths. Whorf popped his trouble-whistle into his mouth and blew three-blasts-of-three as loud as he could.
The seven men facing them appeared not to know what to do for an instant, and then one of them clapped the smallest one on the back.
“‘Tell them we need “arquers,”’ which I would bet means ‘archers,’” Ihor translated, softly, looking down for a moment. “Whistle again, my friend, just to be sure, and then I say that the two to our left look weak and scared; I’ll go that way, you keep the rest off me with your stick, and when I say
“Got it.” Whorf blew hard, three-of-three again, and was hard on Ihor’s heels as they drove to the left. Whether or not Ihor had spotted their weak side, the first man stepped back; the second was reaching for something at his side when Ihor struck with both knives, slashing upward across the man’s right shoulder and stabbing straight at his groin, then pivoted into the cat stance, trapping the man’s thigh between blade edges.
Whorf grasped both rods of his flail at the open end, driving the chain end up under the retreating man’s jaw, and drove forward, sweeping a foot to fling the man over backwards. As he turned, his peripheral vision noted that Ihor’s knives continued their slash deep into his opponent’s thigh, then rose, crossed, to gash his throat and thrust him back; the man dropped onto the pavement, bleeding in a great gush. Finishing his turn, Whorf backhanded a figure-8 at head height, catching an onrushing man across the mouth and then on the temple, continuing the motion in a great circle to smash the flail into the side of his knee.
Whorf whirled and chased after Ihor; the remaining men, though they were big, didn’t seem very fast or eager. The two young men piled down the cobblestone street toward the harbor.
Whorf heard church bells ringing, other crew blowing three-of-three, and the welcome rumble of the ship’s drums beating “To Quarters,” so help was—
Turning a corner, they looked down a steep alley staircase; at the bottom of it, Jorge and Polly were surrounded by more of the men with the sun insignia. Jorge’s arm hung funny and he didn’t seem to have a weapon. Polly was swinging a baseball bat back and forth, looking for the first one to come within reach, but though they moved slowly and cautiously, the men were closing in.
Since Whorf was on the right, he moved the flail to his right hand and ran down the steps. His first stroke took a man in the back of the head, and his recovery stroke smashed a second man across the right trapezius and collarbone when he had barely begun to turn.
The free end of Whorf’s flail bounced back as if catapulted off rubber; he ducked sideways to keep it from hitting him, yanked hard and down to get control of its spin, and brought the tip around in a hard slap that opened a third man’s forehead in a gush of blood.
He could feel Ihor working beside him, striking in the throw-hip-recover-hip rhythm that they’d drilled endlessly on the deck; in his peripheral vision, two more men were down. The enemy had turned their backs on Polly, who brained one with the bat, dropping him. The remaining two opponents fled, shouting.
“Which way?” Whorf gasped.
“Blind alley down here, back up steps,” Jorge gasped. He was a very unnatural shade of gray. They hurried up, Polly and Whorf in the lead.
When Ruth popped out at them, Whorf almost let her have it with the flail before she shrieked, “Take me with you!”
“Follow us!” Ihor said.
“This way,” Jorge said, and they dropped down another steeply staired alley, Ruth running after them.
They had found the right way this time, because it led them straight to where the ship’s company had come ashore and was setting up a perimeter. Glancing behind, Whorf saw that Ruth was still with them.
As the pikemen at the perimeter let them through, one asked, “Her?”
“Maybe a defector, maybe a spy,” Ihor gasped.
Arriving just then, Halleck said, “Let her through. Whorf, Ihor, Polly, bind her. Good job. Jorge, Doctor Park is by the boats.”
Ruth held out her hands meekly for Polly to fasten the cuffs. “Just so you don’t leave me here,” she said.
An arrow rattled onto the pavement, not close, and Halleck turned to say something, but two shots had already suppressed the rooftop sniper. He said, “We’ve got whistles over east, probably near the waterfront or we wouldn’t be able to hear them, and no one’s gone that way yet. Are you three—”
“On our way,” Ihor said.
“One minute more,” Halleck said. “Corelli! Get these guys a drink of water, carbines and hatchets. Keep it to one minute, less if you can, it’s been a while since we heard the whistles—”
Ten minutes later, with three volleys from their Newberry Carbines and some hard flail and bat work, they drove the cheering mob away from the dangling bodies of their fellow sailor-scholar Felicia and Dr. Darcy Keyes, a microbiologist from Sandia; it wasn’t obvious in what order they’d been hanged and mutilated.
“Shit,” Polly said. “Shit shit shit.”
It was the first time the reverend’s daughter had sworn without apologizing, or being teased for it. The worst of the job was guarding the bodies till a bigger party could come to carry them out; it was almost sunset when everyone was finally back on
Though they could see many watchers on the cliffs above, nothing was fired at
“Not exactly Daybreakish, is it?” Whorf asked.
“Read the Jamesgrams.” In one hard gulp, Ihor knocked back the extra whiskey ration that the doctors had prescribed to help them sleep. “Daybreak is splitting and changing and turning into many things. Someday it will just be a thing, like Jesus Christ or Communism or Ukraine or United States. It will mean so many things it won’t mean nothing. Anything. Whatever.”