A Thing of Man
“The machine, by design, MUST be imperfect, for it is a thing of Man. On the day it attains perfection … we cease to be.”
The Pharise Delta was an untouched oddity in a Mechanologist’s otherwise structured and manipulated world, and it was hardly an ideal destination for simple travelers. Yet, two figures stood there, wading through the sculpture of nature, as sea blended with the river. It blossomed out in runoff channels that for as far as a bird or aeronaut were concerned took on the appearance of a melting lotus.
The bay that the river emptied its contents into was walled off by unfriendly cliffs that only marked the end of unkind desert filled with surly rock formations that waged a passive-aggressive war with a nearby irascible marsh. Even the sprawling and once ever-present Vizier Empire had never sent more than piecemeal attempts to claim the area, and that alone said something for the land.
But, year after year, the flighty rumors and third-hand stories of potential wealth in minerals or good plots for farming to be found here somehow persisted. The land itself paid such tales as much mind as it might the turning of the seasons.
The closest speck of civilization to the Pharise Delta was leagues to the south, and it had long ago been abandoned by its caretaker in favor of saner and more profitable locales once said rumors proved unreliable. Yet the allure of the untamed and the hope of enterprise still managed to attract handfuls of newcomers with each passing year. Those that survived the experience left only with tales of the view—for truly, was there ever a more beautifying veneer for any landscape than the thrill of adventure?—and quick wishes to change the subject should the conversation turn to questions of material gain.
Picturesque though it might be to some, the delta itself was simply too remote and too stubborn to play host to most animals, let alone these two strange people. The only sounds it had known since before maps had given in to its existence were the wind, and the confused squawk of a gull that had lost its way. Those same maps could never agree on what the inland’s proper name was, and as no one was in any particular hurry to correct the oversight, most simply referred to the package of geographical features as The Outworks; be it the desert, bluffs, marshes, or half buried and fully forgotten attempts at ancient civilization.
All who came to pass through The Outworks came to the same conclusion: any money-generating resources that adventurers had hoped to find there had been allocated elsewhere when the rest of the world was formed. In The Outworks, all the way to Shiras bay, the only resource to be tapped was a breeze to guide ships on their way to better horizons.
But today, a voice cut through the light breeze, and was lost in the tall rushes and ebbing tide before it could go any farther.
“That is one expensive coffin,” the man said, following up the humor with a well-timed appreciative whistle.
His counterpart, a woman who looked to be in her twenties, did not seem to appreciate the joke. Helga Vesturlund was called many things, yet “jovial” never managed to make the list.
Helga sighed for what had to be the twelfth time in as many minutes, and had to quickly rein in the impulse to use her heavy and use-worn pipe wrench as a cudgel.
It wasn’t because crushing in the man’s head was wrong, not really, but because she doubted the tool would long survive getting that much undiluted stupidity on it. Besides, why take out her anger for the situation on a poor wrench? It wasn’t its fault that such a stalwart woman—and a Vesturlund at that, Gods preserve!—found herself knee-deep in the piss-hole portion of Shiras Cove doing a job that she didn’t sign onto this ship for, with a man she wished she could bodily hurl off said ship.
Well, most of the time. Perhaps it really wasn’t his fault, either. He wasn’t that stupid. Usually.
Ignoring the other man’s lame attempt at what passed for levity among his kind, Helga took a deep breath to calm her nerves, and immediately regretted it. She hated this place. Helga hated the sandy muck and the invasive tang of salt that saturated this tide pool. She hated the fetid cloying blanket of rank decay that whispered from the corpses of Gods-knew-what that had met their ends here in the reeds. She hated that all this delta was seemingly good for was mixing the already foul and oily waters of the Pharise River—a gift from the ever-turning wheels of Industry and Absalohm’s betrayal—with the choking brine of the bay. She hated having to prolong this stupid dance of kicking her knees up, so that the mud and sand molasses she had to work in wouldn’t take her other boot.
But the work had to be done, and a Vesturlund never shirked responsibility.
Work, even hated work in such a horrid place with an infuriating man who was pretending like he could not smell the dead things—How was that even possible? You could practically see the stink of it!—must be done, and would be done to satisfaction.
So, instead of braining her smarmy idiot good-for-nothing Chanlaroian co-worker, she fell back on the tried and true strength of her people. The proud and noble Baerfellen of the North were known for dealing with unpleasant circumstances with tact and aplomb. She centered herself, pulled on that strength, closed her eyes, lifted her face to the skies above …
… And let loose with an impressive string of vile curses in her native tongue. She included her coworker in said curses.
After a few seconds of quiet to allow the onslaught of the woman’s sheer volume to fade into the sea, the man shook his head and his shoulders bobbed with silent laughter. He took a moment to retrieve a rag from his satchel and wipe the sweat from his brow.
Helga begrudgingly admired the dark skin of the Chanlaroi that helped him tolerate this miserable sun. She certainly couldn’t bear it, nor was she bold enough to work topless, like he did. Then again, “Max”, as the crew called him, never missed an opportunity to show off the mosaic of tattoos that painted his lithe chest and arms, or to possibly make Helga blush. His people weren’t known for their modesty.
Honestly, if there were two things that tried Helga’s patience, it was career sailors, and those from Chanlaroi. Max was both, and proud of it. For all Helga knew, Max had probably been a sailor for all forty-three years of his life. Older though he may be, Helga had to admit that his chosen lifestyle certainly kept him looking young.
Gods, even that was annoying.
“Two things, little one,” Max said with an infuriating grin, and held up two fingers for emphasis. “One, you already know me well enough to know that I speak the north-tongue. At least, I speak it well enough to understand the more colorful bits, like the dulcet torrent you just unleashed. Two, while I’d normally be honored to be included in such a twisted tale, what you’re wishing on me is physically impossible. Also, I am allergic to goats.”
Helga shot him the dirtiest look she had in her arsenal by way of reply, and resumed the tiring dance to keep from being claimed by the muck. He had called her “little one” again. Again! Oh, how she loathed being reminded of her height, or lack thereof. So what if she was short for her age and lineage? By the Gods, she was perfectly proportionate, and many a fool man had learned the lesson the hard way. Her fingers brushed the pipe wrench on her belt, and she took a moment to weigh the pros and cons of hitting Max with it once more.
Opting to take the moral high-road, she instead turned her attention to the thing that had earned Max’s initial commentary, and was no closer to figuring out why it was so important than she was when she and Max had first encountered it. For all she could tell, the object was an escape vessel, and for the craftsmanship and inlays of gold and silver that branched out in whorls across the surface it was from some noble’s personal frolic flotilla.
It had probably been cast off when the ship encountered a ballast issue, or some other such nonsense that a proper engineer would know how to deal with. It was patent wastefulness, as far as she understood it. Better than two-thirds of the container was lodged in the silt and it was impossible to tell if there was anything of importance inside, or if the craft even retained any power. It was a pretty thing, and to Helga’s estimation that equated with “useless”, until proven otherwise.
Max hunched down to run his hands along the craft beneath the waterline, doing his best not to submerge himself in the process. Trudging with as much grace as she could, Helga came around to his side of the find to see what he was on about. She raised a hand and knocked on the pod.
“Is worthless, save for the metals. Salvage,” she slathered the word in contempt. “The Captain has us doing the salvage work on rumor. Is not either of our specialties, Max.”
Max looked up from his rummaging with a grin that reached all the way up to his odd amber eyes. He was probably laughing inwardly at Helga’s rough command of the shared language; what was called the trade-tongue of Calopa. Accent or no, Max’s usage far outstripped Helga’s own, and it was another item he loved to tease her about. Her red hair. Her blue eyes. Her northern face. Her shortness. Her language. It was all in good fun, but the list of things she could rebuke him on seemed dwarfed by comparison.
Max gave a small shrug of his shoulders and said, “This rumor proved true. As to why we were selected for the job, we weren’t.” Max slid his hand further into the muck beneath the vessel and continued without looking at Helga.
“I lost a bet, and won a favor, and here we are, the lucky and unlucky,” he added.
Helga leaned against the craft and scoffed. “Once more, you make no sense, Chanlaroi. How do you win anything by losing bet, and what is that to do with me also put to shore?”
“Your tradespeech gets worse when you’re annoyed, you know that?”
Helga leaned down and splashed water at him.”Is not answering,” she growled.
Shaking his head to keep the salt water out of his eyes, Max grunted as he leaned farther to reach as deeply as he could beneath the vessel.
“I made a bet with the Captain that the rumor he picked up from our last drop off wouldn’t pan out,” he admitted. “If I won, he was going to have to allow me to pick the next port and job. If he won, I was going to be on the shore party that collected whatever we found. He hates the jobs I like, and he knows I hate salvaging as much as a certain water-slinging Northern-girl, who shall remain nameless.”
“Yes. But you lost, so how does favor come in, and what of me?”
Max’s face was being lapped at by the waterline now, and he looked as if he would simply slip beneath the pod, but he managed to keep his place as he searched for … well, whatever it was that he searched for.
“As to that,” Max said, “I didn’t lose completely. I lost the spirit of the bet, but not the letter. The rumor did lead us to this, but this isn’t what the rumor had said we would find. So, the Captain and I compromised.”
Max paused, seeing Helga’s confused look. “It means an agreement that both can settle on,” he explained.
Helga nodded and motioned for him to continue.
Max continued the explanation as he worked. “Anyway. We—damned mud—decided that I’d still hit the shore, but in return he owed me a small favor, since I, like you, hate salvage jobs.”
Helga watched as he seemed to struggle with something below the water.
“So? What favor if you hate these jobs like I?” she asked.
Max grunted and jerked his shoulder. At that moment, Helga heard a loud click, and a deep hum began to emanate from the pod. Max slid out of the water, and stood with the kind of grin that made Helga think that he had just gotten away with stealing an Admiralty ship single-handed.
“That’s easy,” he chuckled. “Misery loves company, little one.”
The aggravating man ignored the second gimlet stare Helga fired his way, and placed his hands on the pod.
“So, it’s an unfamiliar model, but the power’s still good. I’d say that tacks on a few more eagles in the asking price. Worth our time, I’d say,” Max said with a smile.
Helga had to agree. Salvaging for metals, even precious ones, was one thing, but given the state of the world, working tech was always in high demand, and very lucrative. She shifted uncomfortably and kicked her knees up. Was there anywhere that the blasted sand would not intrude? At the very least, now that they had verified the find, they would soon be out of this horrible place and out of this crow-loving sun.
“Yes, yes. Good for us,” she chided. “Have to free it from sand first, before we talk of coin.”
Max folded his arms across his chest. How did the man manage to not sink into this muck?
Max nodded, and said, “A fair point. So …” he cocked his head to the side and smiled. “Which of us gets the pleasure of contacting the ship?”
Helga winced. She had hoped beyond hope that Max would have simply volunteered to wade back up to the spot on the beach where the rest of their gear, and therefore the radio, were left. Then she remembered the piece of advice that Max was all too fond of: never volunteer yourself for anything if you can avoid it. She thought about it a moment, and smiled.
“We have coin toss,” Helga smirked.
“That’s fair and level,” Max replied, and he began reaching into the pouch at his hip.
“No!” Helga cut across him. “We use my coin, my toss. You always win with yours. We keep things fair, yes?”
Max put on his best wounded expression, and tossed in a theatrical sigh for good measure. “My word, Helga. It’s as if you accuse me of cheating. My heart—however will I endure such slanderous attacks upon my virtuous soul?”
Helga scrounged in the compartments on her tool belt. “I never said cheat. I said you always win. You know some devilry with your tossing. Or guessing. We use my toss.”
She produced a gold coin, and the embossed eagle of the Sha-Mercantile bank glinted in the sun.
“Is simple. I toss. You call. Loser marches to the radio, and winner takes break.” Helga proclaimed.
Max nodded, and gave a sweeping bow. Helga grinned fiercely. This time she would win, and the fool man would be the one to have to slog through the dirty work. She tossed the coin as high as she could with a bark of laughter, and readied herself to catch it.
The golden disk flashed and spun, and just as it was halfway through its descent, Max yelled out “Eagle!”.
Helga snatched the coin out of the air with one hand, and slapped it down onto the back of the other. She would win, sure as dawn in the east. She could not help herself.
She pulled her hand away, laughing. “Enjoy your walk, old man!”
“Enjoy yours, little one. That’s a lovely bird you have there.”
Helga looked down on the eagle-up coin, and her grin melted away. “Not possible. You are Arithnomancer, I know it! Have the Devil’s luck if not!”
“Hardly. But is it better to be lucky, or observant? You can ponder that one while you hike over to the radio. I think I’ll rest up on our haul, here. Mind the tide pools.”
And with that, Helga had no choice but to turn around and make her way for the shore.
Max’s laughter still carried on the scant breeze as Helga set out for the beach. Every step was a fresh hell of sucking sand, uncooperative current, and a hundred little irritations that only seemed to enhance her humiliation rather than distract her from it. One day. One day she would get the best of him. One day she’d be the one laughing while he was up to his elbows in muck, or lugging heavy freight, or having to scale fish, or any of the dozens of things she ended up doing every time he won a bet with her.
Of course, the sensible thing would have been to stop betting the man, but where was the fun or victory in that? Helga smiled in spite of herself. She had known Max for half a year, serving with him and the others aboard the Silverhearth, and he was ever playing the antagonistic big brother to her. In a weird way, it was a comfort.
Here she was, far away from all that she knew and understood to be normal, and this irritating, damnable, and—she hated to admit it—wonderful man had taken it upon himself to distract a young girl from her homesickness, and show her the ways of the world. He even helped her with her trade speech, though sometimes he made fun of her over her linguistic fumbling.
Regardless, she would make good to repay him that kindness and show him up. One day.
First things first. She kicked away a net of clinging seaweed, and battled her way onto dry land. Her clothes, consisting of good heavy boots—she had blessedly retrieved the other on the trek back—a jumpsuit with the upper half rolled down to her clunky work belt, a linen shirt with a simple leather vest and curious leather gloves with separate fingers that could be buttoned back to allow the wearer more dexterity in less-dangerous tasks—one of Max’s inventions, no less—were more suited to engine rooms than beach attire. By the time she reached the business end of the surf, Helga felt as though she were carrying the better part of the bay sopped up in her garments.
Stupid coin not landing the way it was supposed to.
She finally managed to break free of the cloying water, and stomped her way to the small pile of their gear. The assortment was a small shrine of the always-prepared, and consisted of a crank-radio, dried provisions, quick-shelter, flare gun and mirror. Helga could not help but note the lack of clean water among the lot, but Max would no doubt chide her for her negativity, and then immediately point out an obvious solution to any and all hydration needs. For that matter, she’d probably hear it from Eodhan, Reed, Surae, and the rest of the small crew. Even Cookie would have her say in the matter, though she knew less about surviving in the wild than Helga did.
Helga didn’t want to think what the Captain might say. The man was harder to read than the backwards gibberish that passed for writing in the Southern climes. He was quietly jovial one minute, quietly menacing the next. Then, he was just quiet, which is something that Helga had never seen another soul truly pull off.
There would be a complete stillness to him, like he had suddenly stopped existing for a moment. It was hard to explain, but it was during those times that one had to be careful. You never knew which way the Captain would go after those moments. Max called it the Captain’s “Mercurial Pauses”. The rest of the crew simply called them “a good reason to be anywhere else but within line of sight”.
That scared her. The Captain was all right, but there was no shame in admitting he intimidated her more often than not. No shame at all.
She put it out of mind and set to operating the hand-crank on the radio to build up a sufficient charge. Looking back out over the water, Helga saw Max lounging atop the pod without an apparent care in the world. He must have sensed the attention, because he gave a lazy wave in her direction without so much as raising his head. A wonderful man, but all together insufferable.
After an arm-numbing series of hard-won rotations on the crank, Helga lifted the small speaker box off of the contraption, and pushed the button on its side.
“Silverhearth. Is shore party. We have found cargo to bring aboard,” she said. Helga waited a second, and then remembered what Reed had told her about protocol. “O-over!” she blurted.
Static crackled out of the main body of the radio itself, and a calm voice replied, “Good. I see that your lessons are sticking. Over.”
Helga winced and silently cursed her continuing string of bad luck. Of course it would be the Captain on the other end. He’d have relieved Reed to oversee any reports coming in himself. Helga nodded, and then felt very silly for doing so, as the Captain would not be able to see her. She took a breath, and conjured up the appropriate reply.
“Affirm-ah-tif,” she sounded out. Why couldn’t she just say “yes”? “We have found escape pod. Power works. Is needing winch to free it.” Helga futilely tried to rub sand off of her face. “Over.”
There were a few moments of agonizing silence, and then the static returned.
“Fair enough. No offense, Helga, but I thought Max would be of a mind to relay this himself, and in more … well, more clarity. Your tradespeech is getting better, though. Over.”
Helga sighed and pushed the button. “We had bet. I lost to him, so I am here. Pod looks to be ten by four by six. Power works. Good tech for salvage. Good metal. Over.”
The Captain must have been relaying orders to someone out of the room, because the line went quiet for a minute before he came back on.
“All right then. We’re en route. Send up a flare and we’ll make for it. I thought you knew better than to wager against Max, Helga. The man never loses when it counts. Over.”
“He lost to you on this bet you had on this job, Captain. There is that. Over.”
There was another span of silence, and the static swam out of the radio again. This time, Helga could hear someone laughing in the background.
“Helga, what are you talking about? Max bet me we’d find something worthwhile here in the delta, and I bet it was lost in the ocean given the information I got that put us to this task. He won, obviously, and wanted first crack at the find for winning. Your being there was part of the wager, something about needing a good laugh.”
Helga blinked, but before she could say anything more, the Captain’s voice crackled out of the radio once more.
“By the way, Reed tells me that one of the coins he paid you for last week’s haul is a trick coin, so don’t try to spend it. It’s easy to spot though. Both sides have eagles. Reed misplaced it out of his own set, and he didn’t want you feeling cheated. He’ll reimburse you when you come aboard. Over.”
The shriek of fury that rang out across the delta managed to startle a wayward gull back on its way on to better horizons.
From The Lexicon Calopa, ©2016 Xero Reynolds