Science Fiction & Fantasy

Lent-–728-x-90

Advertisement

Fiction

Pinono Deep

It was Martin Rios who found the captain’s body. Captain Naguen was splayed on the Chieftain’s deck where he’d fallen, and Martin realized as he stood there staring at the disarray of limbs that at least this was some small comfort: As unlucky as Martin had been in his life, there was always someone who had been unluckier.

“Two meters,” Uld said drearily as Martin opened the door into the pilot house and stuck his head in. “Two solid meters of ice in all directions and the nearest skimmer to burn us out is in Port Newson. What is it?” Uld prompted. He stood a head and a half taller than Martin, with two thick yellow braids and a beard that didn’t hide his sour expression.

“The captain’s dead,” Martin told him.

Uld didn’t move from where he was bent over the weather console. “Of course he is,” he said. “Of course he’s fucking dead. Go roust the first mate. Where the fuck is he? What the fuck happened to him?”

“Main deck, port side by the crane. Maybe he fell.”

“Of course he fucking did. Of course.” Uld tapped the long range and stared at Martin with baleful blue eyes. “What? What the fuck are you waiting for? Go.”

• • • •

When Martin got to the first mate’s cabin, the first mate answered with her deck coat wrapped around her like a bathrobe, and a displeased expression on her face.

“The captain’s dead,” Martin said quickly. “On the main deck. Maybe he fell.”

The first mate Verhoeven had black hair in a braid and pale skin made ruddy by weather. She was slight, and they said the biologist was both her lover and brother, though Martin didn’t think Slaine was her brother at all. Slaine came to stand behind her now, his expression incredulous. “Dead, as in dead? That’d be a good joke, if it weren’t five in the morning and we weren’t locked in. Come back to bed, Alisa.” He yawned and turned towards Verhoeven’s bunk, but the first mate took his arm and pushed him past Martin, out the door.

“He’s not joking, Slaine. And that’s ‘Captain’ to you,” she said.

• • • •

Martin helped carry the body belowdecks, limp and too-heavy, wrapped in plastic. Then he set to work cleaning up the dark spot on the deck.

“They’ll want an inquest at Farview. We can’t just tip him overboard.”

The new captain Verhoeven and Slaine stood close by at the rail.

Verhoeven considered Slaine’s words, gazed out at Uld’s two meters of solid ice that held the Chieftain captive. “The swimmers won’t work if there’s a corpse on board.

“Take Uld and Karian. Torch a hole a few hundred yards out and sink him.”

“We’ll all be in prison by the end of the season,” Slaine said, but he was already going, and Martin knew Verhoeven had never expected he would do otherwise.

“When you’re done, roust both watches,” she called after him.

• • • •

In the galley, the crew were packed tight, both watches crammed into a space barely big enough for a dozen men. But the galley at least was warmer than the frozen deck above, the air heavy with the smell of coffee and speculation.

”Naguen’s dead,” Captain Verhoeven said.

Then there was clamor.

Shouts and exclamations and the quartermaster blew his whistle, but it was Badrille everyone heard, sharp over the noise: “Malevolé!”

And a chorus from the knot of swimmers after that, some banging their tattooed hands on the tables. “Malevolé! Malevolé!”

Superstitious, the sailors had told Martin. The swimmers were like children, they’d said, superstitious and impressionable.

Martin wasn’t so sure, himself. The swimmers were the only ones who understood the pinono, and had whatever they used—skill or, depending on whom you asked, magic—to control them. Without the swimmers, no one in the water and maybe even out of it had a chance of surviving a hunt. They kept to themselves, separate from the crew and the ship’s day-to-day functions, but once in the water with a pinono pod, their function was essential.

“Malevolé!” Badrille’s voice was bright and shrill, and it was to him now that the new captain spoke.

“I know the taboo,” she said, and though the quartermaster had lifted his whistle to his lips, the swimmers quieted of their own accord. “The body will be gone by tomorrow morning. As soon as the ice breaks or we’re thawed out, we continue north towards Fillion’s Hip. We’ll work the northeast pack ice and lead edge of the Malden front, along the summer migration route. At least until we get a sighting.”

There was silence, then. The swimmers seemed to be mollified, and there was not a sound of objection to this plan. A strange lack of question about where the captain would be gone to.

Or not strange, considering. Martin knew it had been a thin season before he signed on. The Chieftain was well under her quotas, and everyone’s pay wholly dependent on her success. Only a few hunts, and from those, only a few thousand kilograms of pinono bale, where by now the barrels should be in the tens of thousands, twenties, even.

No one questioned pushing ahead. No one wanted to return to Port Lum empty-handed.

“Wolf Magnussen replaces me, and Euan takes Master first watch. The new second-watch Master is Badrille.”

Now the roar went up. Simultaneous outcry from many of the boatsmen and drayers, and astonishment and laughter from the knot of swimmers at their table.

Swimmers were not crew exactly, and they did not become officers, or take officers’ pay. Many of them knew little about ships and sailing, and few of them cared to learn. Their world was different, their purpose on board specific, bordering on the mystical.

“Quiet.” Magnussen’s voice rumbled out then, and he exchanged a look with Badrille, who was still caught half in laughter, half in surprise. The captain looked on as Wolf gave the swimmer a look of inquiry: yes, or no?

After a moment, Badrille shrugged his golden shoulders, and put his hands up. “Aye, if the Captain says so.”

Verhoeven was about to reply, and Martin wondered what she would say next, when the sounding claxon went.

There was a moment of everyone moving in unison; Martin, Wolf, the swimmers, even the cook, alike all in habit, before even the second trilling whistle went.

Then there was a pause.

Because, Martin thought, we’re locked in. Locked in.

“Stations anyway,” said Captain Verhoeven. Everyone moved again.

On deck, it was stark noon and impossibly, inconceivably colder. Martin pulled his gloves back on, and wished for another pair to go over them. Around him as he went to the starboard cart bay, the crew had set about their appointed tasks, half paused in confusion before the claxon stopped and Euan’s whistle pierced the air.

“Stations!” Wolf’s voice was a carrying bellow, loud enough it hardly needed to be echoed down the deck by other men’s repeating voices.

Two drayers came to join Martin, and they rolled the carts out of the metal shed and down the track to sit under the cranes. One right over the spot Martin had mopped up before, he realized.

The carts on their tracks before they were loaded were slippery and unpredictable, sliding too-quick right after they’d just been stuck fast. After they were loaded, they became stubborn and immovable, even for bigger men than Martin. Handling them for the first hunt, he had come away bruised and bloody. Now, a nimble and a quick learner, more accustomed and learning to keep out of the carts’ way.

“Give me a spoon and I’ll dig my way to him!”

It was Karian’s bellow, coming past on deck, massive harpoon cannon laid on his shoulder. “Where is that son of a bitch? I want to shoot him, now.”

There were answering shouts and laughter from the crew around him. Bette, stout and red, pulled a thin white bone from her belt, waved it at him. A bet, Martin now knew. “First kill’s mine. Three hundred.”

The crew around her roared.

But, Martin thought, if there’s a pod anywhere nearby it’s under a man’s body length of ice. How? How?

Karian waggled what was left of a forefinger at her. “After I dig it out with my spoon and shoot it, you can hand me four hundred, Bettina. No! Better yet, five.”

Digging, with his free hand in his pockets, until finally an onlooker handed him a bone.

He tossed the bone down to the deck at her feet with a wide grin. “There.”

“Five hundred,” Bette said, with a shrug. She bent, picked up the bone, stuck it between her teeth and wandered away off to her cannon station.

Nothing to do unless there was a kill and a great jinn hooked and raised, so Martin and the others went to the rail to watch what events unfolded on the ice below. Wolf and the captain Verhoeven stood around a hole in the ice with Badrille and a handful of swimmers. Slaine was straightening away, some equipment or other balanced on one shoulder, shaking his head. There was argument down there, but on deck they could hear very little of it. Only Slaine, one wave of his hand and then another, emphatic. Verhoeven looking at Badrille, who looked at the swimmers in turn, and there was some nods and shrugs and more conversation.

More from Slaine and now his words came up, angry and strident.

“You can’t send swimmers under the ice, I don’t care how good they are, I don’t care if they find their way out by fucking precognition. It’s twenty-nine and a half degrees in the water. And you can’t shoot at jinn if they’re not breaching. It’s impossible!”

“If they’re getting soundings,” Karian said, leaning on the rail where he stood a few sailors down from Martin, “then they’re surfacing somewhere.”

The drayer with Martin at the rail nodded agreement. “Maybe thaws. Can’t hold their breath forever.”

But they could hold it for a long time, thought Martin. So could the swimmers; he’d seen it. Submerged for five minutes, ten. Someone said Badrille could stay under for half an hour or even longer if he didn’t have to come out to warm.

Karian sucked at his front teeth, fished in his pockets for a cigarette that another sailor eventually supplied him. “Two metres is thick ice,” he said reflectively.

Martin wondered if they’d dumped Naguen’s body, then. He looked down at the expanse of milky white and wondered if the captain’s corpse was bumping along under the thick, cold surface, like Karian’s bull looking for a thaw spot. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Slaine and Karian had taken the bag full of golf clubs that had been the captain’s prized possession, and sunk him with it.

Out on the ice, the captain Verhoeven said something they couldn’t hear, and Slaine’s voice came back up again. “It’s too dangerous. This is without my sanction, I want it clear, and you can leave me out of—”

There was a sound, then. One Martin knew already, the thin whine, starting soft and getting louder, that was the scanners on the harpoon cannon activating. Ascending, louder and higher, until the deck was full of it. Each gun taking it up in turn as it would be when the water was full of breaching jinn.

“Christ,” said the drayer, beside Martin. “Bulls. They’re all around us.”

Then came the creaking, towards the Chieftain’s stern. A creaking loud enough to drown out even the men’s exclamations. Below on the ice, the captain, swimmers, biologist, and Wolf were scrambling for the ladder.

The sound of creaking grew louder, and they could hear along with it now crackling, and a thundering sound that was not at the aft anymore, but traveling forward, along the port side.

Karian bolted for the port rail, cannon brought to bear and leaping, heavy-booted, over crates and rope coils. “Somebody get me a fucking SPOON!!”

“—the ice is too thick,” someone was saying, somewhere.

The thundering, louder and louder. Until the deck shook with it, under their boots.

“Look,” said someone, but everyone was on the port rail and already seeing it. Wolf, sliding the last six rungs of the port ladder back down to the ice. He had a torch tank on his shoulder, and the nozzle in his hand.

“That’s it!” Karian roared. He sighted down the enormous cannon, and along the rail, a dozen other harpooners followed suit. Trained on Wolf and his torch, while the harpoon scanners screamed.

“He’s out of his fucking mind.” Slaine and Verhoeven had come up behind them: Men parted to give the biologist and the captain room at the rail.

“Maybe so, but if he thaws a hole big enough for a jinn to breach through, we stand a few thousand barrels richer,” the captain said.

Martin watched Wolf’s progress across the ice, far enough from the Chieftain to keep the breaching bull from capsizing her. Close enough to where Karian and the others could get a decent shot in. Even in heavy deck boots, Wolf’s feet skidded and slid on the ice’s surface until finally he came to a halt, half upright, half on his knees.

He made a small and lonely shape, as the torch flickered and flared to blue and yellow life, and steam billowed up from the surface, enveloping him.

“Brilliant,” Slaine said as the cloud rose and expanded. “Brilliant. Now he’ll fall in the drink and the harpooners will shoot him.”

The last of Slaine’s sentence was lost as there was a sound, a boom like the world’s largest hammer on a drum a hundred miles wide, and on its heels a crack like the floor of heaven shattering. Shards of ice exploded up from the steam cloud. Martin thought he could see Wolf skating back down a plate of it as it angled upwards, but he wasn’t sure.

Then there was nothing but more ice and the sleek green hide of the pinono bull.

Except it wasn’t green, but gray, and a moment later Badrille and two other swimmers were sliding down the ladder and scrambling across the ice.

“Jinn!!” Slaine was hollering, and a cry came down from the craney above to confirm:

“Jinn, aye, and she’s not all the way through, now!”

Even as the leviathan head sank under the surface, sucking ice and water behind it and for all they knew Wolf as well: The first mate was nowhere to be seen, amid ice and water and what remained of the steam.

“Coming up again!” hollered down from the crane, but they were already seeing it, as Badrille arrived at the jagged hole in time for the thundering explosion of flying ice. He and the other swimmers with him were thrown aside as the jinn came straight up through the hole. She towered higher and higher, water and ice coursing off her. Anterior fin, dorsal fins, body narrowing until Martin realized all but the huge, ringed tail was out of the water.

A good thing, he thought. A good thing Wolf had burned her a hole that far out, or she wouldn’t have just capsized them, she would have crushed them.

Captain Verhoeven bellowed down the line of harpooners, who were standing, watching as the jinn all but cleared the hole and began to topple. “What are you waiting for, permission? Shoot her!!”

So it was that when the jinn crashed to the ice and the crack she made raced to split it all the way to the Chieftain’s hull, so it was that she had a dozen harpoons stuck fast in her hide, and hit the white ice’s surface dead.

There was silence, for a few moments.

Then Badrille’s voice, wry. “We should have thought of this method sooner. Cut holes in the ice and wait for them to jump through and serve themselves up like dinner on a platter.”

But everyone was already in motion. “Dray,” said the captain. “Can the carts come off the tracks?”

“Aye, ma’am,” said the head drayer without a trace of irony, “they do it all the time.”

She nodded. “Use the cranes, get them to the surface. Do what you have to to rig runners.”

“Runners, aye,” the dray said.

Then she was scanning the ice surface again, looking for Wolf and the swimmers, Martin thought. “Uld, get us soundings, see where the rest of the pod is. Slaine—”

“I know. Kit and levels. Rios, come and help.” A gesture, and Martin realized Slaine was talking to him.

Martin took a last look at the immense sleek body of the jinn, with this sense that it was such an impossible sight that it might not be there when he got back abovedecks. Then he followed Slaine below.

“Ph, roe count, biodensity indicators—” Slaine was throwing worn packs and satchels at him. The roe count equipment was in a red backpack. “You’ve only seen one hunt, haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” said Martin, shouldering the backpack and another bag.

Slaine gestured impatiently at the honorific. “Dispense with that shit, I’m a scientist. You were from Van Dieman?” He didn’t wait for Martin to confirm or deny. “What was your time for?”

The cabin was small, and he was already squeezing past Martin to hook a radio off its charger, while lighting a cigarette with his free hand.

“Murder,” said Martin.

“Ah.” Then into the radio, “House, Slaine. I’m headed up with Rios. Tell the captain unless she has other ideas I’ll take my samples from the really big hole.” He turned back to Martin, who hadn’t told anyone on the crew that before. “Smoke?”

“No thank you.”

It was all Slaine said, apart from the periodic curse as they made their way out across the treacherous ice surface, keeping their distance from the enormous gray crack that ran from the beached jinn to the Chieftain’s hull. Some of the swimmers and a rough dozen of the crew were already out at the body of the jinn, though no carts or drayers yet, Martin noticed.

“Jesus, I hate this shit.” Slaine slid and staggered on the ice, and as he arrived at the knot of crew by the jinn, grabbed Karian to steady himself. Karian agreeably reached out a meaty hand, and steadied him in return. “Found Wolf yet?”

Karian shook his head. He was still chewing on the end of the unlit cigarette. “If you ask me,” he said with a nod to the immense jinn, “that bitch swallowed him.”

Slaine looked at the jinn, whose gray bulk eclipsed the midday sun and the better portion of the sky around it. “Only one way to find that out,” he said.

Martin looked over to the ragged edge of the hole she’d breached through. Badrille was just surfacing, to the hands and arms of Coq, a few other swimmers and a handful of crew.

“Three more jinn, no bulls. No Wolf,” he added.

Nothing but the pattern of tattoos and a handful of pinono grease had stood between Badrille’s golden skin and the cold of the water, but he stood now with his coat around his sinewed shoulders, comfortable and unconcerned. Except to hear that no one had seen the first mate, and then he frowned. “Not good. He’s not in the water.

“The bulls would have come.”

“You can’t be sure the bulls aren’t there.” Slaine made his way over, and Martin followed.

“No?” Badrille turned and lifted an eyebrow that was sticky and white with pinono fat. “Because you have not yet stuck your little probe up the ass of the universe, nothing can be true.” Badrille clicked his tongue. “You and your backpacks have been wrong many times, Mattathias. I haven’t been wrong yet.”

Slaine chuckled. He crouched a short distance away from where the floe gave way to water and floating chunks of ice, inching his careful way towards the edge.

“It’s all right,” Badrille called out to him, as Slaine went on his belly and put a hand out for Martin to slide him the biomass pack. “If . . . no, when you fall in, I’ll still come and fetch you.”

Slaine was about to reply, when there was a strange, deep gurgling from the body of the jinn.

“Gas bubbles from surfacing,” he said as he glanced over at the body. The rumbling continued. “She’ll probably—”

There was a rushing sound, then, and several thin streams of black smoke shot from the jinn’s dorsal vents. “Well, that’s different,” Slaine said.

“Smells like supper,” Karian laughed, just as the stench reached Martin. Oddly smoky, like burnt meat.

“It’s the torch,” Martin said suddenly. “It’s Wolf, with the torch. Inside,” he added, when everyone was still staring at him.

“Cut her open,” Karian said, but he had little rank here, and everyone looked at Badrille.

“It will take too long,” Badrille said. “We won’t get to him in time.”

He looked to Slaine, who had backed away from the hole and was looking up at the great carcass, muttering to himself. “Slaine?”

“—ninety-five times around three-fifty—quiet, I’m thinking—” Then finally Slaine looked away from the jinn and at Badrille. “She can’t be any less than four years old. Her esophageal passages aren’t more than a foot and a half across, even in rictus.

Badrille frowned. “Too small for me, or you.”

“The passages open up when she’s swallowing, and peristalsis might have forced him through.”

“Grind him to fucking powder in the process,” Karian grumbled, but then they were all seeing it, the oily threads of black smoke still drifting skyward.

“Stick a charge up her snout, blow her open,” one of the men suggested.

“And Wolf in the process.”

“And then we lose a few thousand barrels of bale.”

It could happen, Martin knew. It could happen that they would let Wolf die in there rather than risk harvest and processing. A case of too many men’s jobs, too many men’s livelihoods.

His mouth was dry, and part of what he said came out hoarse. “I can fit in there. I’ll go and find him.” Already pulling his coat off, despite Karian’s rumble of protest and Slaine shaking his head.

“He’s right,” Badrille said, but for just a moment Martin thought he saw the golden gaze go shipward, as though perhaps a higher authority than his own should make the decision.

“Find him and then what?” Karian demanded. “Then I have to pick pieces of boy and first mate out of my nice bale.”

“You don’t have to do this.” Slaine was next to him, pulling a green tank out of the medical kit. “Nobody gets paid enough for that.”

Martin didn’t say anything, and after a moment Slaine handed him the tank. “Use it sparingly—don’t open it up more than a quarter turn, and if Wolf isn’t in good shape don’t waste it on him.”

Martin nodded, and put the tank strap over his shoulder.

“The bale’s going to be a fuck of a tangle to get through, but don’t worry about which passage to take; they all go to the same place. If you’re in luck she took a big gulp of air when she surfaced.” Slaine was silent a moment, then. “Best case, you’ve got about two hours. Worst, around forty minutes. Wolf’s little barbecue isn’t going to help matters.”

Martin nodded again.

Men had gathered around them, and there was encouragement and dissent. “Not worth it,” he heard, and “he might not even be in there.” Though smoke still curled lazily from the jinn as though she were some huge, slumbering dragon. If smoke goes out, Martin thought, maybe air goes in. It was a small hope, anyway.

Karian and a few of the others were prising the jinn’s mouth open; thick, rubbery lips and spiky whiskers. Someone stuck an ice axe in the opening, which was little more than a smirk of a hole at the far corner of the jinn’s mouth.

“Martin, wait.” Badrille’s hand was on his shoulder, and he stopped, turned back for a moment to look at the swimmer. “Listen to me. Will you listen?”

He drew Martin a few steps away, hand still on his shoulder. “All right,” Martin said.

Badrille cupped the side of Martin’s face with a warm hand, then, and drew his thumb in a firm stroke across his forehead. “Like you, like me, she is filled with water. Water carries life. We pass it from one world through one wall into the next. Don’t be frightened.”

“I’m not.” They were odd words, but Badrille’s voice was soothing, lulling.

“Everything is in the water, everything you need. Just live there.

“Only live there.”

When Martin looked down, Badrille was letting go of his forearm, and there were mottled blue marks there where his hand had been, rising into shapes and characters. The tattoos, he realized. Which were not ink at all. “They’ll fade,” said Badrille, with a shrug.

“What if I don’t want them to?”

Badrille blinked at him, then looked out over the ice, away from ship, men, jinn. “I don’t know.” He looked back at Martin and smiled.

Martin stood for a few more moments there, then stepped back from Badrille and made his way over to the jinn. Karian and one of the drayers held the corner of the jinn’s lip up higher for him as he pushed through, like climbing under the hem of a slick rubber skirt into darkness. Inside the mouth was slippery and wet, but not smelling anywhere near as foul as Martin had thought it might.

Past the lips, the jinn’s mouth opened up, giving him room to stand upright for a brief moment before he lost his footing and fell.

“What?” Karian was still standing at the opening when Martin stuck his head back out into the air and white icy light again.

“I need this.” Martin wrapped his hand around the ice axe, and Karian stuck his big shoulder under the lip, heaved it up with a grunt so he could pull the axe free.

“Here.” Slaine was shoving a pathetically small flashlight at him. He took that, too, pocketing it while Karian held the lip up and his face turned red with the effort.

“Anytime, now.”

Martin was already turning, heading back in. Before, he thought, before he saw the lip dropping closed and lost his nerve.

A moment later, he was plunged into darkness.

He crawled along, using the axe to reach ahead, sink it deep, and anchor, pulling himself towards it. His hands and knees sunk into what felt like a carpet of knobby, wet mushrooms. Mushrooms which, Martin discovered with a surprised sound and a curse, contained the first and second rows of teeth. Small and raggedly sharp, and the cut they’d made on his palm burned fiercely.

Somewhere in the back of her mouth the bale would start, he knew that much; thick strands of tough membrane that would tangle and catch. He’d asked the first day the draying was done and as they helped with the processing, “What do they want it for?”

The head dray had looked at him blankly a few moments and shrugged. “No idea. Creams or medicines or something, maybe.”

“Who cares, right?” One of the other drayers had laughed, then. “Who cares as long as they pay a fuck of a lot for it.”

Here the cavern of the pinono’s mouth sloped up, and the slick, knotted flesh under his feet seemed that much slicker. He hefted the axe, drove it into the slippery floor, and pulled himself along and up with it. Dead, he reminded himself as the axe sunk in; he could smell the familiar mineral smell of her blood, or the grayish ooze that passed for it. She was dead, and the floor wouldn’t convulse suddenly at the prick of the axe, she wouldn’t sneeze him out, send him flying a hundred miles out over ice and frozen seawater.

The oozing blood made his footing more difficult still as it flowed down to his boots, and caused them to slither out from under him. Martin hung grimly to the axe with both hands as he fell to his belly, feet sliding out down the slope. Wolf, he thought, frontfirst in the carpet of slimy nodules. Wolf, or go back into the daylight now. The notion of loading the big purple cubes of the jinn’s flesh into carts and then barrels, knowing he might find the first mate’s arm or leg among them, made his stomach turn.

He reached up, plunged his hand into the fleshy knobs and knotted his fist, feeling his nails tear in and cut, feeling the seep of her blood again. He twisted his wrist, tangling it all around it, flesh of her mouth and his fingers. Secure enough, and he pulled himself up by it and unstuck the axe, then hefted that and plunged it in again higher up.

By hand and axe and slithering boots, he made progress along.

He came to the bale, then. Slick and stretching over his head and down to his feet, like wet strands of rubbery tape caught at the top and bottom of the immense pinono’s throat. Here he found he was less likely to slide back, as he pressed into the tangle of bale, and could brace his feet against the strands, catch them in his hands although they were slippery like everything else, and here and there he lost his grip. As difficult as the bale made it to go backwards, it made it to go forwards. Soon, he was using the axe to swing and try and cut the leathery bale so he could continue to press on through it.

Deeper, and deeper.

He imagined suddenly that he’d lost sense of direction, and was circling around and around in the jinn’s throat, in this wet, sticking veil that smelled of the wood of the ship’s deck, and deepest, most brackish salt.

And smoke.

Now he smelled it, amid the bale, the jinn’s smell. Smoke, that sick, fleshy burning smell.

He plunged forward, forcing himself through the bale, strands tangling his feet and arms and he’d trip and fall, only to hang by strands he could haul himself back up on. Then have to untangle, force himself forward. More dense, and he shouldered and squeezed and found himself having to go to his knees.

And then his belly.

The smoke smell was stronger, but the air seemed close. Thicker. The struggle of climbing through the bale had made his breath shorten, he thought.

Then again, maybe it was something else.

He thought of the tank on his back, whose strap had tangled a half dozen times with the bale and he’d almost left it behind him.

He reached, found the rubbery mask somehow and put it to his mouth and nose, and fumbled with the valve until he tasted cooler air that seemed thinner and sweeter, somehow.

Good. This was the right direction. Tighter, just as Slaine had said.

He closed the valve, shouldered the tank and crawled forward on his belly, forcing himself between the catching strands of bale. Then suddenly there was nothing there except darkness, and a tight wet tube all around him. No bale.

Just a narrowing tunnel of flesh, with hard ridges in rings around him that kept him from shouldering it or kneeing the fleshy aperture wider. Bone, maybe. Cartilage? Slaine or Badrille would know.

Forward, until he was forced to push the green tank along the slippery tunnel ahead of him, and crawl along on his elbows, jabbing them between the ridges as he pulled himself along. He had to stop again and put the now-slippery mask against his face, draw cooler, sweeter air before continuing forward.

Don’t waste it on him, Slaine had said. Don’t waste it on him.

• • • •

Martin’s sentence had taken four months to come down the wire, a communications lag that wasn’t subtracted from the four years he was given. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, to be among a thirty-man crew working tea crops on a South Five hydroponics station when the sabotage happened. Unlucky, to have a gun put in his hand and not completely understand why until he’d shot a foreman and been left to take the blame. The security feeds told a partial truth and Martin made his best attempt at the rest of it, but there were the adjusters and owners and auditors to placate. Martin was sent to Van Diemen for four years, on top of the four months he’d already spent incarcerated.

Unlucky, as the judge had said.

Martin had liked the hydroponics bays. They were levels and levels of sweet-smelling green, where he’d planted and tended and sown, and done minor repairs on the machines that made light and leached feed into the beds. He’d liked the clean, warm air, and the soft feel of the plants in his hands; he was good at what he did.

He’d started to set a little money aside, bit by bit. For what, he didn’t know. Something else, maybe. Something else of his own someday.

• • • •

Light ahead.

Light, Martin realized, flickering ahead and the air had taken on a more burnt, acrid smell. He struggled forward, squirming through the passage as best he could, body stretched out towards the flicker down along at the end.

Further. Further, but it came to Martin that the end was too far away, and now—even worse—he’d become stuck. Caught in a casing of still-warm flesh, where he could now move neither forward nor backwards.

He lay gasping, reached for the rubber mask again. Don’t waste it on him.

On an indrawn breath, mask most of the way to his mouth, he smelled it then. Smoke, this time drifting down the narrow passage towards him. This time not the smell of burning flesh, as he drew in another breath again, but something else. Cherry. Cherry, and wood.

“Wolf,” he said, but it came out in a croak. Louder: “Wolf.”

There was sound, a splash, maybe a rustle up ahead. The light flickered again, flaring ahead of him more brightly. “Rios?”

Martin struggled in the grip of the pinono’s throat. Everything is in the water, everything you need. Don’t be afraid.

He lowered his cheek to the pinono’s slick flesh, ear pressed to it as though he could hear Badrille’s voice there. Maybe he had. The throat was warm, and wet. Wet, he thought.

. . . she is filled with water. Water carries life.

Breathe.

The flesh clung slickly to his nose, cheek, throat. He breathed in deep, then deeper. Pass through.

A thrashing squirm, and Martin clawed hard, dug in his toes and fingers and suddenly, in a rush, popped free and shot through.

He and the green tank landed in a pool of water in the wider passage that was illuminated only by the ember of Wolf’s pipe. The pipe was still clamped in the first mate’s teeth as he slithered over to Martin to help.

“Lit it on the last of the torch,” he explained, while Martin gasped and wheezed in his massive grip, and Wolf shook his head at the offer of the oxygen mask. “No, better you go first. The heat forced her vents open for a while, but they’ve closed up again. Not big enough to crawl through.”

Then, after a moment: “You all right, there?”

“Yes.” Martin took the mask away from his mouth and pushed it at Wolf. “Have you ever done anything you’re sorry for?” he asked him.

Wolf considered him in the darkness, beard and hair wild and smelling of cherry pipe smoke and char.

“I killed someone,” Martin said before the first mate could answer him.

“Not the captain,” Wolf replied.

Martin had a moment of confusion, watching as Wolf took a long drag from the mask and exhaled slowly as though it were the pipe he’d just extinguished. “No. The foreman at Roryn station. I shouldn’t have. I shot him.”

Wolf was silent a while longer, and handed the mask back again. When Martin hesitated, the first mate shook his head. “Take it.” His grip was still heavy on Martin’s sodden shirt, and he sat half-in, half-out of the pool of water that Martin had landed in. “There’s six of us with bad licenses,” he said, then. “Me, Uld, Karian . . . a few others. We got in late to Port Sum, and they’d closed the numbers for the season. So we bought forgeries.”

Martin didn’t say anything. He just listened.

“Naguen found out. He told Verhoeven they’d go back to port, take the season’s loss.”

“Because of the bounty he’d collect if he turned you all in,” Martin said after a moment, realizing.

“Hrm,” said Wolf, a rumble of assent.

Mutiny, Martin thought. If the crew knew, they’d mutiny and then the shipping company could collect on whatever bale they brought in, all the wages and bonuses would be lost and they’d all be stripped of their licenses permanently. Everyone. If Naguen went back and turned in the six, he’d get his bounty, and the season would be over and that would be that. He’d be fat wealthy, and the crew would be penniless.

“Was it you?” Martin asked, though he knew better. He didn’t ask, was it Captain Verhoeven?

With Naguen gone, they had a chance of one or two good hunts, and the whole remaining crew finishing out what they could of the season.

“No one comes out clean, anyway,” Wolf told him.

Martin thought about that. He sat in silence for a while. Thought of who might have killed Naguen, thought of Wolf opening the ice so the jinn could break through. Thought of himself, inching along through crushing, wet darkness. He gave a last thought to the warmth and green of distant bays, then let them go. He belonged here, now. It had nothing to do, as he thought, with what was earned, but what was given.

He and Wolf passed the mask back and forth, then, in the darkness. Until the tank ran out and a voice told Martin not to be frightened.

Martin wasn’t sure if it was Wolf or Badrille or the pinono who’d said it.

But he woke smelling ice, and bale, in the bright light of certain day.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Kate Bachus

Kate Bachus

Kate Bachus’s fiction has been nominated for a Sturgeon Award, and her fiction has appeared in venues such as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two kids, and plays too much ice hockey.