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Mile Markers

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Enjoy the Eleventh Chapter of "The Rebel" from Melody and the Pier to Forever: Book Two!

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Echo and Touch

ANURAG PEERED through the telescope at the great landmass no more than ten misons off the Selaki's bow. A landmass that wasn't there a month ago.
From here it was blue and purple and white, rising out of the ocean like a bold dream, spreading left and right for an unguessable distance. On the Ari just off port, Tray was looking through the 'scope and commenting on everything he saw.
"Those peaks ... tall, theys are. Prob'ly three misons or more, right outta the oceans. Lotsa forest ‘neath 'em ... some cliffs a-port, an inlet ‘tween 'em, looks like ... wildflowers, I'm guessin' that patch o' color is jus’ starboard ..."
"So you think Infinitus is buried?" asked Anurag.
"That's my guess,” called back Kaza. “But we're still five hundred misons from it as the Arrowsparrow flies, so my guess is just that—a guess."
Dragha came up from the cabin. Anurag handed the telescope to him. He pulled it open and glanced through.
"Fresh as a virgin she is," he growled happily. "Wouldn't mind plowin' through her verdant meadows and takin' me a taste of her fruits. Ha!"
He handed the 'scope back to Anurag, who, along with Kaza and Tray, chuckled.
Dragha Polaugh was everything Kaza said he was: a hard-as-nails sailor who loved his drink and telling dirty jokes, whose demeanor and comportment belied a very human side that Anurag couldn't quite wrap his mind around. His expertise with the Healing Arts wasn't exaggerated: just three days ago he emerged topdeck with a duffel bag and, approaching Anurag, who was at the wheel, said, "Lock 'er up, Captain. Let's have a look-see at those scars."
Anurag followed him into the cabin, where he sat at the edge of his bed after stripping to the waist. Dragha pulled up the desk chair until he was very close. He held a large magnifying glass and did a long inspection of the scars covering his upper body.
"Smooth edges ..." he murmured. "Uniform length, most of 'em ... same width ... pinkish perimeters ... raised centers, slightly white ..."
He looked up from the magnifying glass.
"Sons of bitches whipped you with P.A.M."
"Which is what?" said Anurag.
"Partially aecxal materials," grumbled Dragha. "Bastards."
"So the scars are here to stay?" Anurag had already accepted their permanence.
"Most likely," nodded Dragha resignedly, "most likely ..." He held up a stubby finger. "But not all PAMs are the same. Like anything, they range from the poorly crafted to the top-shelf stuff. Mind if I test how well the Imperials outfit their torturers?"
"Be my guest.”
"Tell ya, Captain, you sure look a damn sight better than you did," said the Healer, reaching into his duffel bag. "Like death warmed over, you were. Spent like an old trollop." He pulled up a small brown bottle. "But Captain Kaza told me you were one of the toughest sons of bitches he'd ever come across." He grinned. "And without a doubt the meanest. I told him you were gonna have to be if you wanted to live. You did."
He opened the bottle, which gave off a strong, bitter odor.
"This is my own concoction. Illegal as all hell, o' course, but that never stopped me...." He dabbed a little on a cloth, which came away with a dark yellow stain on it.
"If you got scars from high-quality PAM, you won't feel a thing."
He pressed the cloth to Anurag's ribs, at a spot where the scarring was particularly thick.
At first Anurag felt nothing but a cold wet spot on his ribs, and the pressure of Dragha's hand against them. But then he felt it get abruptly warm, then hot. He gritted his teeth and hissed.
"Just as I thought," Dragha growled. "Goddamn Imperials wouldn't know something fine if she trotted up to 'em and waggled her nipples over their beer. Hang on now. Tell me when it stops stingin'."
The pain was so fierce that Anurag's eyes welled up and spilled over. He growled involuntarily, sucking wind in through his teeth. But then the sting abated and, a second later, disappeared.
Dragha pulled the cloth away.
Thin laces of blood covered the yellow stain, but when Anurag looked down he couldn't see any signs of broken skin or even redness and irritation.
The Healer dropped the cloth on his duffel and picked up his magnifying glass. He bent and studied the area where he'd applied the liquid.
"Probably thirty, maybe even forty percent Healed," he said. He came up, looked him in the eye. "They'll never go completely away, but they'll look a helluva lot smaller, and they won't bother you near as much. It's up to you. You'll have to decide if it's worth the pain."
"There are clusters of scars in spots," said Anurag, having already decided that the pain was worth it, "and those itch like hell. I'll need your help with the ones on my back. I can't reach them."
"Shall we tackle two or three now?"
Anurag nodded.
"On your stomach then.”
He lay on his bed face down. Minutes and not a few muffled curses yelled into his pillow later, Dragha said, "We'll call it good for now. The two I got already look a damn sight better."
For three days that's how it went. Once every four hours or so (or when Anurag had ginned up the courage, which sometimes took longer), he would remove his shirt and Dragha would apply more of that damnable yellow liquid. Sometimes he'd be at the wheel, and sometimes he'd sit at his desk chair and lean over, and sometimes he would lie on his bed. Just yesterday the Healer announced, "I got the unreachables, Captain. I think you can get the rest of 'em, including the ones on your legs and toolkit."
Anurag thought of applying that liquid to his groin, and shuddered. Dragha caught the motion and laughed.
"I wouldn't either," he said. " 'Sides, the ladies'll look at it and think you're the very salt o' the sea. Make ya a legend, those scars will. Ha!"
Anurag grinned.
The scars weren't Healed. But where the concoction had touched them there was a very noticeable difference.
Now, three days later, Dragha stood next to him and stared at what was surely the Sankyan Wilderness. On the Arilyceum, Kaza and Tray took turns with their 'scope.
Kaza pointed toward the mysterious landmass and called out, "My sea paper still says all this land isn't here. Yours?"
"Same," said Anurag, recalling the last time he looked at it, which was perhaps three hours ago. "Even here ten misons away from it."
Sea paper was infallibly accurate. So the fact that both scrolls were reporting an obvious error disturbed everyone greatly.
He spoke the thought everyone was thinking and no one wanted to say.
"Think we should attempt a landing? Maybe that'll set ‘em right."
Tray whistled. Dragha coughed. But Kaza merely shook his head, a lopsided grin on his face as he looked his way.
No one landed on the Sankyan Wilderness. Thousands tried over the millennia; only six or so returned to their people to tell the tale. Their exploits became legendary, known to all.
"The hell with it. I'll do it," said Anurag, interpreting his friend's glance correctly. "Give me the scrolls. I'll Transform and swim over and see if that works."
"I's sees nowheres to stand within sights, Cap'n Anurag, sir," said Tray, gawking at him like he was a deranged lunatic.
"We've got another problem," said Dragha. "If they don't tell the truth now, what of the Saeire Insu's? Their scrolls will all be reporting the same nothin' gull crap!"
"That's true," said Kaza. "That would be a real problem."
"Let's find a beach. I'd like to try," said Anurag, thinking, It’ll probably kill me ... but somehow … somehow I doubt it.
The decision (which ultimately lay with Kaza, as he was the senior Saeire Insu) was to do just that. They decided to sail west, since they believed they were closer in fact to the west end of the newly moved Wilderness than the east, and thus closer to a Gateway that hadn't been swallowed by it. After sending an Arrowsparrow (one of Kaza's, which were rested) to the Eastern Tangent to inform the Saeire Insu of the Wilderness’ moving, they set sail, and an hour later, with Kaza's Storyteller wind pushing them, were making excellent time. The singleships sailed next to each other, their crews watching the remarkable land ten misons to port as it passed slowly by.
"Even if this works," called out Anurag over the steady breeze, "what of the Saeire Insu? They'll have no navigational aid around a major landmass. That's a disaster just waiting to happen."
"They'll be mobilizing soon, if they haven't already started," replied Kaza. "The last thing they need is to find the Sankyan Wilderness blocking their way to Aquanicentra. Their plans will have to be scuttled. Like you said, a disaster waiting to happen."
Dragha was keeping busy by swabbing the deck, which Anurag thanked him for. It was only now becoming worthy of some other adjective than gruesome.
"Do you remember any of the legends about sailors landing on the Sankyan?" Anurag asked him. "The only one I can come up with is the one where Galarragians landed and those on the ship watched as a great wave washed ashore and drowned them."
"I know that one," said Dragha, grunting while he mopped.
"How long ago does the legend say it happened?"
"Hmm," said Dragha, stopping and wiping the sweat off his brow. "At least an Age ago. There are stories of men sinking into the sand of the beach, stories of lightning striking ‘em dead, stories about sailors returning to their ships only to fall deathly ill ... How many of them are true ... well, that's another matter, isn't it?"
"And those who survived?"
Dragha shook his head. "I’ve never believed it. How easy would it be to return from sea to tell all your mates that you survived a Sankyan Wilderness landing? You'd only have to make sure your crew memorized the same story, the same lies. Oh, I'm not discountin' all the stories, mind. A few survived. But they've long since turned to dust."
"Here's a thought," said Anurag. "What if the legends themselves about the Sankyan killing everybody landing on it are lies? What if landing on it isn't a problem at all?"
The Healer started mopping again.
"I don’t think so, Captain. I've read official histories in August. When I was just a lad I took an interest in seafarin' adventures. I have no doubt that the Sankyan is hostile to all who attempt to set foot on its shores." He stopped and stared at him. "I would urge great caution. But you don't have your head up your ass far as I can tell, Captain, so I won't tell you somethin' you don't need to hear."
They sailed a day and a half before they spied a beachhead. A long, thin strip of yellow sand stretched west for at least twenty misons before disappearing into sea mist. The ships dropped anchor as close as they dared, which was probably no more than two misons offshore.
The first decision was an easy one.
"I'll take my scroll only," said Anurag. "That way you'll still have yours if I die."
"But if you live, and the sea paper shows the Sankyan after you land, you'll have to come back and grab Captain Kaza's and go right back. Seems foolish to tempt the fates twice, Captain," remarked Dragha.
"If I live once, I'll live twice," said Anurag. The force in his voice surprised him—and everyone else, who only stared. "If landing with my scroll doesn't fix yours too, Captain, then it won't really matter, since the Saeire Insu will continue to have equally blind scrolls as well. I see no flaws in that logic ... do any of you?"
His compatriots held up, thinking, then shook their heads.
The second decision wasn't easy at all.
If he died, who should be saddled with the unpleasant task of letting his mother and Orion know—or, for that matter, Dohbdy and the Poets? Kaza insisted on doing it himself, but Anurag balked at the idea. "You're needed in the Senecum Ocean, Captain, with the Saeire Insu who'll be heading that way. You know it and I know it."
"We can't send an Arrowsparrow?" asked Dragha.
"An Arrowsparrow ... to lets a mother know she's lost her son?" said Tray, aghast. " 'Sides, there's no ways to know it'll gets there! The Cap'n's mother n' nephew mays not be recognizable to an Arrowsparrow. We's don' know!"
"It can be done," said Kaza. "I've done it. The Arrowsparrow will know them. The problem is neither Orion nor his aunt will know what to do with the sea paper scroll once they open it, assuming they even get that far. Neither of them are Dreamcatchers. And anyway, Tray's right. It would be unspeakably cruel to inform anyone in such a way."
"It was just a suggestion" said Dragha, his face reflecting reproach. He glanced at Anurag. "I've been known to walk ass backwards without a shave, Captain. I meant no harm in it."
Anurag shook his head. "Forget about it." Then: "I'm going to give the duty to you, Dragha. I'll write a couple of letters later to deliver to them if it comes to that.  And the Selaki will pass to you as well. You'll be her captain. You've earned it."
That gave the Healer pause.
"I ... I don't know what to say ... My own ship. A Saeire Insu Courier ... I ..." He gave a hard nod, then slapped him on the back. "I need a drink!"
On the Selaki, the four of them spent the evening drinking and singing Saeire Insu songs, reserving the best ones for last, which were overwhelmingly Neptonian and about overcoming enemies and facing storms and returning home to their beautiful women.
"And they also say hello to their wives!" sang Dragha, laughing and tipping his bottle high. He swallowed and belted out:
"Oh, she said she was lonely,
day by day,
with me away.
But when I came through the door,
she called me a boor,
'cause my lumber was leadin' the way!"
He strummed his roihcaror while blowing plaintively into its top.
The Sankyan Wilderness cut a dark, jagged chord across the bright banded sphere of Ammalinaeus, the celestial king’s mighty rings like heavenly paths leading down to it. The sky was clear and Satelemark's other children arced heavenward, one after the other, dutifully following their brother Aquanus.
Anurag gazed up after a large swallow of Gaian rum and marveled inwardly that he was still alive. He may very well die tomorrow, but tonight was his: his thoughts, his fears, his triumphs, his tragedies. Death, he mused, was nothing more than the dissolving of all proprietary barriers. If he perished tomorrow, his thoughts, his fears, his triumphs and tragedies will belong to everyone to do with as they will.
He silently drank to Orion, to his mother, to Brinkley and Tal, and then to Dohbdy and the Poets. He missed all of them, and as the drink freed the deepest sentiments from their long lightless captivity in the catacombs within his spirit, he said hello to the loneliness that kept constant company with them. It was a bittersweet and hollow ache that sounded his solitude and, like a young bride waiting for her husband's return from the sea, listened in vain for a return echo. To date, no echo had ever been heard, which made the company sitting with him now all the more precious.
"She said her name was Onhinskel,
And I thought to meself,
Oh, what the hell ...
But in the throes of passion,
In most untimely fashion,
Her conch ate my tackle
Like a clamshell!"
It wasn't death that scared him most. What scared him most was what he had seen a thousand times over on his many travels as a Courier, and that was the walking dead that populated the cities and towns and villages of Aquanus, the blank, pallid, empty visages revealing stifled spirits and extinguished courage, the meek acquiescence of vanquishment, the downturned gazes, the huddling and hurrying by, the lightless dawns and the hardened nights. What scared him most was the urge to go along and get along like so, so many others, to keep his mouth shut, to avert his gaze at the omnipresent evil, or, worse, to look at it and proclaim, as so many do, "It's all there is, therefore it is good and right."
He came back to the moment just as Tray finished toasting "brotherhoods and second families, indeed!" He clinked his mug against the others and his loneliness sounded out hopefully in the moment ...
He loved these men, and he knew they would lay their lives down for him should it come to that. But it wasn't enough, could never be enough….
Just then, fainter than faint, for the first time in his entire life, he heard it:
An echo.
He knew whose voice it belonged to, and with it her face. The realization of how deeply he loved her stunned him as he drunkenly sat there. It amplified that faint echo until it deafened his singing mates, and then even his own crowing. Like a ship whose mooring had been cast off, he detached from them utterly. He went silent mid-song and stared starward.
He … loved her.
He growled against that love's futility. She was, after all, married by now.
He growled louder, growled harder; and then he roared.
His friends fell silent. They stared at him, surprised by his outburst.
He lowered his glare until it was pointed at them. Another moment passed and his hearing returned.
"Gentlemen!" he bellowed. "Gentlemen! Here's to landing on new shores!"
"Hear, hear!" yelled Kaza.
"New shores!" belched Dragha.
But Tray offered nothing. He merely brought his flagon against Anurag's, his gaze one of intimate understanding, a gaze that told Anurag unmistakably that he understood that he was not talking about the Sankyan Wilderness.
He woke at first light. His head pounded; his mouth was dry and cottony. He stumbled into the bathroom and relieved himself, staying there for a long time, sitting on the pot, head in his hands. His stomach rumbled, hungry and unhappy. He stood and flushed, then shivered under a frigid shower until he felt he had reclaimed some semblance of volition and direction. He stepped out and dried off and dressed.
Last night was lost in a swirling haze of drink and song and laughter. But one thing wasn't. It was anchored like a lighthouse beacon in fog only it could penetrate.
I love her. I love her ...
He thought he might wake to find that echo a false one, amplified by rum and nerves over his upcoming mission. He had fallen face down in his bed and slept the fitful sleep common to inebriation, tossing and turning, punctuated by many trips to the bathroom. He heard Dragha milling about long after the group had broken up, singing nonsensical verses, jumbling and slurring his words. Later he thought he heard Tray or Kaza lean over the railing of the Ari to vomit.
The power of that echo, he hoped, would fall prey to dissolving night and lurching, protesting sobriety.
But it hadn't.
I ... love her.
If anything, it had grown stronger. Much stronger. The hangover had armed it and his loneliness with hooks.
He checked on the Arrowsparrows, then stepped out of his cabin into a brightening pink dawn. Dragha had passed out under the mainmast, a half-empty bottle in his grasp.
He shuffled down to the forward hold for breakfast, which he ate sparingly, just a bagel half and some juice, which he gingerly sipped. When he mounted the stairs back to the topdeck, he heard, "How are you feeling?"
Kaza was staring at him from the Ari. He looked like hell, his hair a tangled mess, his stubble-covered face gray and drawn.
"Like you look," mumbled Anurag.
"When do you want to do this?"
"Anytime," said Anurag, shrugging. "I'd rather get it over with than wait and let it eat at me. What?"
Kaza was staring at him weirdly.
"Nothing," said Kaza, giving a half-smile. "Let's rouse our shipmates and get you ready."
He stood at the stern of his singleship in his skivvies, the scroll of sea paper in his fist. His compatriots stood behind him.
They discussed using the Ari's Antarctic Cottonwood to shield both ships against whatever malicious force would likely be waiting for him once he landed. They decided against it in that half-hearted way that told everyone they were only talking about it to avoid talking about his death, which almost certainly waited for him two misons away.
"Besides," he grumbled, "if this is it, I'd at least like a chance to turn and look back at your ugly mugs one last time."
He had written Orion and his mother, separately.
He had fought the temptation to write her. To write Dohbdy. He had fought harder against the urge to send her an Arrowsparrow. He would wait until he got back to the Eastern Tangent to shoot one her way, as he promised he would. It was an unapologetically brash faith that led him to believe he'd make it there, and not die on the soft yellow shore waiting just a short swim away.
The Sankyan Wilderness.
He looked over his shoulder at the men behind him one last time, then mounted the railing and jumped into the sea.
He flashed.
It felt good to be a shark once more. He dove in crystal-clear water and made for the shore, his massive tail swishing steadily back and forth. Schools of fish scattered madly. Sea-bottom creatures scurried back into their holes of coral and sand and rock. The water flowed around his sleek gray form, obedient and rich with oxygen. He felt it pass through his gills and brighten his blood.
He had killed an Imperial Mephastophian in this ocean. It was like the news of that battle had spread to all its corners, to all the life in it. He felt it in the extra speed by which the fish fled and the creatures beneath stared upward at his passing form.
He wondered how a landmass as great as the Sankyan's could move without sending gargantuan waves over the whole of Aquanus. He wondered if the geography of the ocean bottom had been disturbed, and expected to come upon a wide, sterile band of new rock and sand before gaining the shore. But it was as if the Wilderness had always been here. Nothing looked out of place, nothing looked disturbed. When the bottom began sloping upward and the surf began urging him to hurry, he shut off his thoughts and pushed his great body on until his shark bottom scraped sand.
He flashed and stood.
Before the next wave could overtake him, he marched forward until he was standing on dry land.
The Sankyan Wilderness.
The sand under his feet was soft and warm. He sank to his ankles in it, shivering with the cool breezes caressing his body and the cold water dripping off it.
He opened the scroll, looked at it.
As he watched, the outlines of the mysterious land began to fill in, very slowly.
He turned to wave to his friends, to give them a happy thumbs-up. He knew they were watching him through their 'scopes.
He turned to wave ... but stopped.
Something was wrong.
He wheeled about.
A woman was approaching him. Her skin was ivory-white, her eyes a startling pale-purple, her black hair flowing almost like she was underwater. The dress she wore streamed with rainbow light, trailed behind her like a midnight comet.
Within touching distance, she commanded:
"On your knees, warrior."
Her voice touched every sense in his body, overwhelmed them.
This was it, he thought abstractedly. He was going to die.
He dropped to his knees. He knew somehow that she had power beyond anything he could imagine. He thought of Dohbdy and felt an intense stab of regret that he hadn't sent that Arrowsparrow.
"Please ... spare my friends.”
"Close your eyes and cover your head. Put it in the sand now."
He did as told without hesitation.
There was a brilliant streaking flash, one he could plainly see, and then a blinding starburst followed a moment later by an earth-shaking boom. Both were of such magnitude that he felt certain Aquanus itself had been split open by a tremendous heavenly lightning strike. An instant before it all happened he was sure he could hear the wail of a great multitude, like thousands being cruelly tortured. With the fearsome echo of the boom went the wailing. The ground continued to shake for some time after.
He waited for the fatal stroke to fall. When it didn't, when seeming minutes passed, he dared look up.
The woman was still there. She was watching him curiously.
"Stand," she commanded.
He stood.
She reached out for him—for the scroll in his grip.
He offered it to her.
She took it and opened it and studied it for a long time.
She smiled.
She was watching the outlines of the Sankyan Wilderness fill in, details coming clearer and clearer.
She rolled it up and handed it back to him.
"Tell your people that they may pass through me upon the Great Highway once spirit becomes flesh. Tell them, warrior, that they may live."
She held on to the scroll as he grasped it. She touched his wrist.
Anurag would take that touch to his grave. For just that brief, brief, all too brief moment he felt, intimately, the life of the entire Sankyan Wilderness flow through him. It was as if he was the grass in the valleys—each individual blade, each sensation separate from its neighbors, the dew on it, the thirsty stretch of its tangled roots beneath it, the pleasant coolness of the soil, its rich black taste ... He felt each flower, each rock, each pebble, each cracked cliffside, each reaching mountain peak and each cloud gliding over them; he felt the calm depths of fresh inland waters and the proud roar of canyon rivers. He felt existence ebb and flow like a timeless tide, renew and grow old and die and then renew again, a million-million times over; he felt it permutate and mix and then permutate again, each instant from the next, permutations within permutations within permutations. Consciousness was all around him, even in the grains of sand at his feet, in each individual grain. There was a grand unifying Oneness to it all, and yet an inviolable separateness to every thing that, instead of condemning that thing to eternal loneliness and oblivion, added to the Oneness and glorified it and fed sensuously back on it, cycling for time eternal. He breathed in … and it felt as though his lungs were infinite, as though he could breathe … forever …
But … but … there was something more ... something … more…. The sense of waiting, of … of anticipation.
There were souls here ... beings.
They were waiting for someone.
Someone in the Saeire Insu.
He remembered gazing down at his wrist, where she was touching it.
When he woke up, he was in his bed on the Selaki.