THIS WORLD LISTENS
The port of New Nassau was, as far as I could remember from a trip I made in my teens, not very much like the original port of Nassau. Which was itself named for an even older Nassau in Germany, which wasn’t even anywhere near the sea.
Old Nassau, as the residents of the World Facing calls it, was on a flat strip of land in an archipelago of shoals and low-lying islands that barely impinged on the horizon. The Bahamas.
New Nassau, which I saw over the bow as the ship plowed through the waves, was a surprisingly organized cluster of stone buildings climbing up a rather steep slope ending in a chaotic wall of rock cliffs and trees that reached up to another slope of grasses and windblown trees shimmering green in the late afternoon sun. Up, up, far beyond that, pressed against the sky, was a green and black nipple ringed with milky clouds.
It was beautiful. The island had a weight to its appearance, and the city seemed to nestle against that weight like a creature snuggling against its mother. There were none of the dirty, shanty town tents that I expected to be gathered on the shore. Nothing makeshift about the place at all. There was a well-tended harbor of wood and stone that looked like it had been standing for millennia.
New Nassau was aged, settled, matured. I was a larva.
The man guarding me at the bow was the funk bassist. I regretted that flippant reduction. I had no idea how old the man was or why he wore his hair that way.
“Can I ask your name?”
“May,” he said, staring at the island.
I thought I’d misheard. His name was May? He turned and frowned at me.
“May you ask me my name? The English you newcomers speak is appalling.”
Those were the first words he’d spoken to me. I could tell from his accent that English was not his first language. Likely mastered after a long struggle. Unlike myself.
“You are right. We’ve gotten lazy in the 21st century.”
His eyes turned back to the island. “Before that.”
I let myself laugh, despite his disgust. To my chagrin, he did not join me. A gambit failed.
“How long have you been coming to New Nassau?”
“One question at a time, engineer.” He smiled at me then. A charming, victor’s smile. “My name is Vuvússa Várion.”
I couldn’t even begin to place that in any language I knew. I barely could imagine how to spell it.
“I have been coming to New Nassau since it was a shrine city called Ayingosha. We rowed here in canoes. The islands were closer then.”
I tried to make that fricative sound, but I just exhaled instead. Closer?
“That lasted about two thousand years until engineers like you brought metal-working, then it was conquered by the Gwengi who mispronounced it Ingwusi.”
The fricative sound came out right that time. Metal-working was, to put it lightly, very fucking old. Which meant Vuvússa Várion was very fucking old. In a world of casual violence, he had survived civilizations.
“Then,” he tilted his head in reverie. “I don’t know how long after, but it was overrun by the Num, and then the Ari, and then the Piyeku.” I didn’t recognize any of those names.
There was a heel-toe clomp of boots behind us. That could only be one man.
“Master Várion,” Yellowbeard said. “You’ll go ashore with us to watch our friend John.”
Yellowbeard’s chapped hands joined mine on the gunwale, on the side opposite my guardian.
I stared into the shrinking turquoise stretch of water between the ship and the port. “And after the, um, Piyeku?”
Várion looked around me, at the captain, who nodded assent in the corner of my eye.
“It was known for centuries as Rasenna Nova under the Romans, as you know them. Then, after the seas pushed the lands apart, the English came and called it Ravenport. The pirates renamed it when they took over.”
I heard all the stuff about the English and the pirates, but I was stuck on the seas pushing the lands apart. My engineer brain could not stop working.
“Well, Mr. Randolph,” Yellowbeard chuckled. Why was I a Mister while Várion was a Master? “If you’re fascinated by names, why haven’t you asked the name of this brig?”
I met his gaze. His lips were clamped in a thoughtful grin. He had me, and I did not know how. I was a bit surprised that I had not learned what the brig was called. The starboard watch had not mentioned it. I shrugged.
Yellowbeard looked toward the approaching port, the wind blowing his dirty blonde hair over his red calico shoulders. “Speedwell.”
Lincoln and Mukki rowed our boat from the Speedwell—the third boat of six bought by port watch pirates who had swum ashore to replace the boats in which the starboard watch had been murdered. As we grounded on the sand of New Nassau, some of the Speedwell‘s men who had beached before us came running up. Among them was the Asian guy with the clumsy head-shave.
“Captain!” the shaved guy panted. “Whitebeard is in town.”
Another pirate lord. That put a solemn note on an already solemn moment. After we left the boat, Yellowbeard stomped ahead of us as Várion kept himself at my elbow, occasionally nudging me to remind me of his imposing presence. He really didn’t need to do that.
We passed through the plankboard warehouses into a neighborhood that looked like it was built by Medieval Europeans, three-story rowhouses of ancient camel-toned brick with balconies protected by Renaissance-looking iron banisters.
A curly mustachioed hurdy-gurdy player sat on a keg in the shadow of a palm tree, playing Gaga’s Bad Romance. A dark-skinned woman in a bizarre, elaborately embroidered 1960s mod dress lilted the lyrics in a Middle Eastern accent, a crowd of Renaissance Faire rejects enrapt in a semi-circle around the duo.
In the far distance were towers of rough, brown stone that looked like something from a Mayan ruin. But, from Várion’s account, I knew they were much older.
We ground to a halt in a square about the size of a basketball court, palm trees scattered here and there as if by chance, a whitewashed well at the center with a grayed wooden post-and-lintel draped with ropes attached to buckets gathered in the sand all around.
People moved here and there, men and (I reacted viscerally) women, dressed in garments from every memory I had of period dramas from around the world. Georgian long coats and Antebellum dresses and Indian saris and Japanese kimonos. Caballero sombreros, Asian straw hats, Islamic hijabs, gangster fedoras.
But, on the heads of the men and many of the women, mostly cocked hats like the one Yellowbeard wore. The age of sail was the dominant theme.
We started walking again, and people began to notice us. Or, more accurately, they started to notice Yellowbeard. Then me, in shackles. Then Várion, standing so imposingly at my side. Something was up, they inferred, and they parted before us.
We rounded the well on the right and marched up to the base of a large, Swiss-looking hotel at the inland end of the square. On a broad balcony with a commanding view of the square, stood seven men. The six framing the central figure were typical denizens of the place, loose and open and stained linen shirts, pistols and cutlasses hanging at their waists. In the center was a man in black-and-blue velvet like a king, with a white cocked hat for a crown, embroidered in turquoise thread with an intricacy that spoke of wasted wealth.
His beard spread below his chin like a fan, white and feathery. His face was brown, his features East Indian. He had a warm smile.
“Yellowbeard!” He had the Desi accent I expected.
Our company came to a halt at the prompt of the captain’s boots, which were surprisingly noisy on sand.
“Whitebeard! It’s good to see you!” The captain’s grin was wider than I had yet seen. “You’ve brought a heavy haul to New Nassau?”
The tediously aged pirate smirked. “Of course I have. And so, I’ve heard, have you.”
The people still stirring around the square slowed and came to a stop. I inferred that I was Yellowbeard’s heavy haul.
“Perhaps I have,” my captain said. “But, it’ll take me a while to fully unload it.”
Mukki peered around Várion at me. The larger man shoved him.
“Well, captain. Rest assured that the common compact stands.” Whitebeard glanced side-to-side at his men. Their eyes were locked on us. “Unload your haul as you will!”
“As I would…” Yellowbeard took a deep breath. “Regardless.”
After securing a room at a hotel that looked like a miniature Gothic cathedral, Yellowbeard instructed Várion to take me to a nearby cove. He called it Legionnaire’s Cove, which gave hints to its history. Várion was silent, and alone, at my left shoulder as we marched through a neighborhood that looked like someone had constructed a trailer park out of old boats.
“What about the guy who does Prince?”
He put a single finger between my shoulders, which meant No. I pouted and started whistling Kiss. I stopped. Not a good song for whistling.
After the buildings fell away behind us, there was a charming stretch of palms, rocks, sand, and low-lying grasses. Little green crabs scuttered into cover as we walked.
The cove was stones and sand and low green plants that looked like cilantro. I was pushed to my buttocks to sit, shackled at the wrists on the surf-lapped rocks. Várion squatted up the beach, about ten meters distant, building a fire as the sky turned purple and the clouds in the distance were casting long shadows over the sea that was tickling my bare toes with gentle waves that had broken their strength on a far reef.
A good holding place for a heavy haul, safe from the intrigues and threats of New Nassau. I would not meet the women of that town, nor taste its food, nor hear Prince played by a Hoosier guitarist in a pirate tavern.
I felt a touch at my ankle, a slimy tug. There was a red tendril of muscle wrapping itself around my calf. I jerked at my leg, but I could not move it. My skin went cold. A pair of eyes rose above the water, propped above a red mass of flesh. The pupils were black horizontal slits like keyholes. One of them turned toward me.
I pulled at my leg again, but the tentacle was like iron and tugged back. Not to drag me in but to hold me in place. The message was clear. When I came still in recognition of my futility, the skin of the octopus went white.
Below the eyes, in that smooth, wet platform of flesh, a string of letters appeared. Block letters, rough at the edges, dark green against white.
I was frozen. In fear, in confusion, in curiosity.
“I COULD,” the skin wrote at me, “DRAG YOU IN.”
There was a tug at my ankle, as if to prove the point. “You can speak,” was all I could say.
“I CAN,” the octopus wrote. “WE EVOLVED, THIS OVER, THOUSANDS, OF YEARS, AS YOU, CAME TO, DOMINATE…”
I intuited where the text was going, but my shaking head could not stop reading.
“Humans,” I said.
“OH YES,” it said, flashing green before turning white again. “I WAS HUMAN, BEFORE, IN THE WORLD, OF THINGS.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Várion. He was rhythmically leaning back and forth, spinning a skewer of crabs over the fire, singing Prince’s Kiss quietly to himself.
“You came here as an octopus?”
It turned brown and silver, little fleshy horns growing over its eyes. “NOT ALL SEE, AFTERLIFE, AS YOU. I MYSELF, REINCARNATED, AS YOU SEE, ME NOW.”
“How did you know to speak English to me?”
The fleshy mass leaned forward, rippling white and black, and squirted a stream of salt water into my face.
“What the fuck?”
It tugged gently at my ankle. “I WAS FROM, INDIA DURING, THE RAJ, WE LEARNED, ENGLISH, TO GET BY.”
A second tentacle crawled from the water toward my free ankle. I pulled it back to tuck it behind the rock I was sitting on. The tentacle redirected to my trapped leg to redouble the fleshy shackle.
“What do you want?”
“RUMORS AMONG, THE HUMANS, IN NASSAU, REACHED US.” The slimy skin flickered, faster than I could register colors. “IN THE WATER.”
“ABOUT YOU, I’M GUESSING.” The fleshy mass turned pure white again. “ENGINEER.”
My blood flushed. The octopus shivered, sensing my discomfort.
“PARROTS HEARD. TOLD DOLPHINS. THEY TOLD US.”
I heard Samuel L. Jackson’s voice in my head: “Mother … fucker.” I felt my tongue wanting to say that, but I forced it to say: “What’s your name?”
“THINGS WILL,” it paused, flashing black before turning red, “CHANGE, FROM YOU.”
“RIFLING WILL, BRING A WAVE, OF CHANGE, TO THIS WORLD.”
I closed my eyes and saw the blood-spattered boats with the corpses of the starboard watch twisted in mortal agony. Juan de la Hoz, his mouth gaping in terror. I felt the tug of the tentacles at my ankle.
“SHOULD KNOW, WHAT YOU’LL BE, CHANGING.”
I nodded, then glanced over my shoulder. Várion’s head was shaking in a rhythm, his hand turning the crabs over the fire on the spit he had constructed.
“Tell me,” I said.
“VERY OLD ONES, SAY THIS WORLD, MOSTLY LAND ONCE.”
I nodded and felt the tentacles relax. Suckers drawing at me, tasting my skin.
“THEN,” its slimy skin flickered black and red, “POLYNESIANS, VIKINGS, SPANISH, ENGLISH, FRENCH.”
The history flooded my mind. Oceanic voyagers, starting a thousand years ago.
“THE SEAS, TOOK OVER, WE HAD MORE, ROOM TO LIVE.”
The octopus knew it had my attention. Its grip on my leg had become a caress. I let my free leg come out of hiding and set its heel beside my other foot. A third tentacles crept from the water to play with my toes.
“The lands separated,” I said, remembering what Várion had said. “The waters grew wider.”
“YES,” it wrote, fleshy skin becoming as smooth as white marble.
More of us drowned, I inferred. The World Facing had changed, because the people coming here had changed. It had adjusted to their expectations.
“This world listens,” I said, feeling my throat tighten, the sickness in my gut and my head at once. I remembered Bob’s maniacal grin. I tasted the gunpowder smoke on my tongue. The world had listened to the starboard watch, to the reasoning I had given them about violence and disease, and it responded. It had made them sick.
“FEWER, OF YOU,” it repeated, “THEIR VOICES, WERE SILENCED, THE WORLD, STOPPED CHANGING.”
The sickness sank in. The World Facing was stuck in the age of sail, with minor anomalies, because fewer humans reborn as humans were surviving in it to bring new ideas. The germ theory of disease I had given to the starboard watch. Probably some concepts about aging that my calculating mind hadn’t yet come up with. And, without a doubt, the technologies of rifling, of steam power, of the telegraph and the telephone and television. Memories, yes, glimpses of the effects of knowledge. But, not the knowledge itself. Not the engineering behind it all.
Most of that was smothered in the waters, in the minds of drowned scientists and in humans reborn in forms that were not fit to build an internal combustion engine. Octopus, dolphin, parrot.
“BEFORE YOU, MOVE FORWARD.” It released my feet and bobbed in an almost playful way. Another jet of cold water splashed in my face. “GET A BIRD, A PARROT.”
And, just as Várion called out my name, the octopus wrote: “MY NAME IS, HIRAL, GIRL NAME, ASK FOR ME.”
With a ripple of white fleshy ridges that I could not help but interpret as a playful and conspiratorial grin, she slipped back into the waters, glittering in the light of two moons.