“What is that?”
Sirhan and Kinsey shuffled their feet on my shoulders. There was a something, I don’t know what it was, in the forest ahead of us. It looked like a pile of huge barrels arranged in a hamster maze up the slope and among the low limbs of the trees. Vines were growing haphazardly all over the mess, but sailcloth was draped and riveted over the joints between the barrels in a way that spoke of design.
“Tons,” spoke the raven.
“Yes,” I said. “It looks very heavy.”
“No,” he said. “T, U, N, S. Tuns. A type of cask.”
I sighed and looked up at him. “Yes, okay. But, what is it?”
“Someone built it,” the monkey added.
I glared up at her. “Obvi. But, why?”
I was squatting behind a large bush, just staring at the thing. We were on the slope above the monks’ gorge, above the plantation fields. The trails up there were narrow and stony. I wasn’t sure who made them or whose footsteps maintained them against the overgrowth. Maybe knowing that was the trick.
“Who would be up here?”
Sirhan ruffled his feathers. “Escaped slaves?”
Of course. The atrocities of the age of sail aroused the resistance of the same age.
“Are they,” I started, but then I clammed up. I was about to ask if the slaves were Africans, like in the age of sail in the World of Things. But then, I realized that I didn’t know if Sirhan and Kinsey were black, although I had made a reasonable guess that Sirhan was Arab. Still, that would be an uncomfortable conversation. My lingering silence was growing increasingly awkward.
“Who are the slaves here?”
“On the Right Breast?” Kinsey asked. “Mostly Asian. Japanese and Chinese and Malaysians. Some Indonesians.”
I let that sink in. Racial again, different race. “And the plantation owners?”
“They were Mexicans a while back,” Sirhan said. “I think Spaniards before that. The names of the plantations are all in Spanish. Casa de Trigo. Tobaco Dulce. Piña Divina. But the masters are mostly black dudes now. Former gangsters and rappers.”
“That’s ironic,” I said.
“I was Lebanese,” Sirhan said, “If you were wondering.”
I felt my shoulder sag. “Sorry. I kinda was.”
“I was Irish-American,” Kinsey piped up, in a very distantly immigrated white American way.
“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day,” I said, “whenever that comes.”
She cheeped and smiled.
“My ancestors were English,” I added lamely. “I think. Randolph. Maybe Norman or Germanic. White.”
“Do you think they’re in there?” Kinsey asked. “The slaves.” She had stated the hypothesis. She was good at voicing the right questions. It was up to me to test it. I stood and walked up the narrow trail toward the whatever, with the animals still loyally on my shoulders.
I cleared my throat. “Hello?”
Crickets. Literal crickets in the morning shadow of the mountain. Also bird calls and other sounds I couldn’t place. Mist poured down the slope over the maze of barrels.
“Hello! We mean no harm. We’re not from the plantations.”
There was a shuffling sound from inside the barrels. A figure appeared in the end of one of them, brushing aside the vines with a hand.
The face was round and dark amber. Black eyes blinked against the morning light. Thick, black hair with a hint of a wave fell over half of her face, making it all the more beautiful for the concealment. I was struck dumb.
“Friends,” Kinsey said.
“Friends,” Sirhan reiterated.
She stepped out of the barrel and stood. She was dressed in rags that made mine look like an admiral’s uniform. Her body’s curves pressed against those rags. Breasts and hips. And, she had straw sandals on her delicate, bronze feet. I envied her that.
“How many are you?” I asked.
She swallowed and her eyes darted to the side.
“Would a plantation hunter have us on his shoulders?” Sirhan said.
The woman took a step forward. A man stepped out of the maze behind her, wielding a wooden sword. He looked about my age, of course, but his cautiously bent posture, resigned to back problems, told me he had died as an old man. He stepped to one side, and was followed by more women, and a few more men. Eventually, we were facing twenty or so people in rags, mostly Asians as Kinsey had predicted. A couple of men who looked Middle Eastern.
The man with the wooden sword took a step forward. He pointed the weapon at me.
“You come from New Nassau.”
“You are pirates.” He nudged the sword at me. “Looking for conscripts.”
“No,” I said. “I was conscripted. I fled, just as you did.”
Sirhan and Kinsey shifted on my shoulders. I felt I was doing well. I hoped they thought so, too.
“So, you seek sanctuary,” the man said, lowering the wooden sword.
I felt my hands struggling to stay open, away from my weapons. They were sweating. I was sweating.
“We seek passage,” I said. “To someplace safe.”
The first woman spoke: “There is no place safe.”
I needed to bring this down to basics. Learn the foundation and build from there. Think like an engineer. Like an architect.
“How do you eat?”
The guy with the sword looked back at the two Middle Eastern men. One of them looked at his feet, then blinked. He stepped forward.
“My brother Ahmad and I find food in the forest. We get fruits, hunt chickens and—” He hesitated. “Pigs.”
Sirhan’s weight shifted on my shoulder. Pork made them uncomfortable. Ashamed. Muslims, then. I was getting clues.
“Brothers? In the World of Things?”
They traded looks. “Yes, sir. We died in a terrorist attack in Iraq. We showed up here in the fields and were taken by Q Bone.”
Another weird coincidence. Two brothers die together and are reborn together?
The first woman nodded. “Our former master. The lord of Marihuana Dulce.”
She looked sad. They all looked sad. I needed to build something on what they had given me.
“My name is John Randolph.” I frowned, embarrassed at what I was about to say. “I died stupidly, complaining to myself about how uncomfortable my new shoes were.”
I saw their shoulders drop. Their bodies relaxing. My confession was opening doors.
“I was standing in a crosswalk. In a comfortable neighborhood in the United States. Griping to myself about my job. About my girlfriend. About the choices I had for breakfast.”
“I’m from Richmond,” the first woman said. “Amy Ida-Ayu.”
I smiled at her. Another American, who had likely died from something less dramatic than a terrorist attack in Iraq. She seemed just as embarrassed about it as I was.
“So, you know where I’m coming from. Anyway, I was standing in a crosswalk, just feeling sorry for myself. Apparently a driver didn’t see me and ran me over. And, here I am.”
The man with the sword leaned in. “I am Naoki. I came here three hundred years ago. You are new here?”
“I am,” I nodded. “Only a few weeks. I haven’t seen as much as you. But, I’ve seen plenty.”
Naoki nodded. “How did you arrive?”
I realized that the situation was stable. I cast my glance side-to-side at Sirhan and Kinsey, nodded at them. “Go. Make sure we’re alone.” They leapt from my shoulders and set out in opposite directions. The eyes of the escaped slaves followed them for a moment, then returned to me.
“I awoke on a tiny island, where a pirate crew was careening their ship.” I settled my eyes on Naoki’s. “Yellowbeard’s crew.”
A dozen mouths opened with a sound like a giant drop of water falling into a giant pool. The name worried them. It worried me.
“You escaped him?” Naoki asked.
“I did.” I felt myself on the verge of bragging. Did I have a right to brag? Was I okay with taking credit for the gifts Hiral had brought into my life, my only two friends in the World Facing? The aid that Sirhan and Kinsey had brought with them. I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without their assistance. “With some help from the raven and the monkey.”
They traded looks. I had to remind myself that the talking animals tried to keep themselves secret. I had been let into a conspiracy, and now I was letting others in on it.
“So,” Naoki said, “Captain Yellowbeard will be chasing you?”
I had to be honest. I sensed that they would sense dishonesty. “He is. I stuck a blade into his quartermaster, at a monastery in the gorges below. Yellowbeard found me there, and I escaped him again. He and his men are searching for me among the plantations.”
“To the north.”
“Q Bone,” Amy said.
The others began murmuring. They clearly were afraid of both the captain and their former master. Afraid of them finding common cause. An alliance between the two would be disastrous.
“Where do you intend to flee?” Naoki said.
He was seeking stability. A firm, bedrock foundation for whatever I intended to build. Think like an engineer, I told myself. Like an architect. I needed to drive my piles to refusal. When setting the foundation for a building, engineers pound the piles until they strike solid rock. Five strikes without any movement in the pile, and they were said to be driven to refusal. I needed to find that stability.
“There’s a port on the other side of the island.” My first strike.
That did not sit well with the escaped slaves. One of the Iraqi brothers stepped forward.
“Calvary? They trade for the plantation owners,” he said. “If they knew about us, they’d send us back to Q Bone.”
I shook my head. “Not if I can offer them something more valuable than a slaver’s ransom.” My second strike.
Naoki slipped his wooden sword into his rope belt. “What would that be?”
I felt my lips grow tight. Should I change the world for the sake of a few escaped slaves?
“I know,” I stuttered. What did I know, really? Amy was staring intently into my eyes. She wanted escape, too. “I know something. Something that made Yellowbeard conscript me onto his crew. Something that made him slaughter half of his crew to protect.”
My third strike. I saw the open mouth of Juan de la Hoz, hanging lifeless over the open waters. All the men who had already died for my knowledge.
“An advantage,” said the Iraqi brother. “Something Yellowbeard wanted to use against the company men? Against the other captains?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am an engineer.”
There was another murmur among the escaped slaves.
“This is why he hunts you,” Naoki said.
“Yes,” I said. They all started nodding. In understanding or just sympathy? My fourth strike.
I felt constrained by the rule above all rules. How could I introduce such a disruptive technology into the world, knowing how dangerous it could be? And, to sell it to the allies of the slavers? The ropes of consequence wrapped tight around me.
The escaped slaves went blank before my eyes. Even Amy, whose beauty had made my breath stop. Now, my breath was stopped by fear. Fear of the consequences of my decisions. Fear of adding to the deaths in my wake.
In the blur of suppressed tears, I saw Vuvussa Várion. He was just staring at me with his ancient gaze. Saying something about God and free will and the rules of the worlds. I should only change things to make myself free. And maybe, to make others free as well.
“I know how to rifle guns,” I breathed.
All of their heads came up, erect. Their backs, too. They knew what I meant. The rumor of rifling had reached even unto the slaves. My fifth strike.
“You’d sell this to the men in Calvary,” said Naoki.
I nodded. “I’d sell it to win freedom. For myself and my friends.”
They were glancing back and forth, and frowning, considering whether to trust me.
“Or,” I said. I felt my mind taking up the hammer for a superfluous sixth strike. My teeth came together. “I could promise them the rifling in exchange for a ship. And then we could run, and be free.”
“Free,” said Amy.
“As pirates,” Naoki said.
I stared at Amy’s sandaled feet.
“Just free,” I said. “Pirates or not.”
“To where,” said Ahmad’s brother.
“To,” I considered it carefully, “to Jissamán?”
This elicited loud murmurs among the escaped slaves. I heard the name of the rogue port. I heard “The Left Breast.” I heard a lot of talk in a language I did not know.
“Go up,” Naoki said, his hang resting on his wooden sword. “We need to talk.”