Michael Z. Williamson
  • Port Call

    Port Call

    Michael Z. Williamson

    I wrote this, one of my earliest stories, late night/early morning July 31-Aug 1, 2001. That date may not be significant to you. It is to a great many of us.

    If you think you recognize any of the characters, you almost certainly do.

    In memory of Poul Anderson, one of the best.

    NOTE: At the time I wrote this, I wasn't aware of the heinous background of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I will not edit her out of the story at this time, but I will not be buying any more of her works, and I encourage others not to.

    The ship drifted in from the pearly mist, long and lean and talking in the language of canvas and wood. She sighed and moaned, rustled and groaned, with the occasional splash from her bows. The shape defined itself, as of a ghost materializing from the netherworld, and sheeted sails, taut ropes, and elegantly turned timber rails took form. She slowed as she flew, easing across the break from chop to harbor-calmed waters, and sought haven.

    "HO, THE DOCKS!" a voice called, male and firm and sure. His waving arm indicated who he was, and the dockhands waggled in return. He heaved the coiled rope, watching it lazily tumble and twist, seeming almost alive as it settled over an age-blackened iron cleat.

    A burly docker looped it and took up slack, waiting for the ship to bump against the boards. He raised his brows in surprise and pleasure as the maneuver was completed; the crew were masters. The vessel seemed to slow of her own accord, and barely nudged the pads. Ships of this size normally stayed in the harbor and sent boats ashore. To bring a sloop up to even this long a pier was a challenge.

    The man at the prow called to the helm, "Nicely done, Robert, as always." He turned back to the jetty and lowered a plank.

    "Thanks, Lynn," came the reply from astern. The tall, balding steersman came walking along the side, feet skilled as only a seasoned sailor's feet can be, and undisturbed by the still rocking motion of the wavelets under the dock pilings. He paused at a side door and rapped, opened it, and assisted two ladies over the step and to the deck. Other crew or passengers, impossible to tell apart as they all acted as if they were both, came around and helped with chores.

    The dockers had seen all types over the years, yet this encounter was strange by any comparison. It was an odd crew. They were mostly old, sixty or better, but with young eyes. They fitted no particular style or body shape. Slender, heavy, elfin, and blocky builds were all represented. Yet despite the obviously unseamanlike physiques, there was a radiance, a power to all their gazes and presences.

    It was an odd ship. It seemed to be a luxury sloop for a wealthy man, yet boasted five 12 pound guns per side. It also had roomy holds. It resembled the small coasters that made their living running odd jobs between the ports of the west coast, but was far larger.

    A representative from the harbor master's office came by and noted the name, Long Voyage, recorded the names of her owner of record and captain, and the mate signed the form with a flourishing hand. The rep glanced over the scene, and asked, "Taking on cargo or supplies?"

    "No cargo. Just a passenger," replied the mate. His beard was neat and gray, and he alone of the crew wore a blue blazer and officer's hat. The others were dressed as civilians, but in the most bizarre garb. One of them wore, of all things, a skunkskin cap.

    "Who's the passenger?" asked the bureaucrat, looking around in confusion. Others were on the pier, but none this far out and none with the look of travelers.

    "He's not here yet. Perhaps tomorrow," was the reply. "We're in no hurry."

    Evening, blustery and threatening and darker than the hour would indicate. A storm howled from the west, thrumming the ropes and whistling over the eaves of the cabin. Within the cabin, a different battle raged.

    "John, stop editing my log!" the other John demanded. His perfect Oxford accent was strained with irritation.

    "You wrote it as if those petty pirates were an actual threat," the first said reasonably, knowing to which exact entry the other referred. "Everyone rational knows that we always have the upper hand over those miserable second-raters."

    "You pulled that manifest destiny stuff for years, but it won't fly here. I write the log, and if I see fit to embellish for sake of a better story, that's my prerogative!"

    "Fritz and Gordy were more than men enough for that rabble! And it's not as if three quarters of the crew aren't aching to man the guns and draw steel at any sign of a threat. Besides, Murray negotiated their surrender quite easily."

    "Gentlemen," the captain said. His voice didn't rise, and didn't need to. They both faced him. "You may be owner," he said to the first, "but we've had this discussion before. The log belongs to the captain. As captain, I've seen fit to delegate that task. Besides, Professor John is as good as they come. Trust him."

    Nods and mutters indicated settlement, and everyone relaxed again.

    "Why the hurry, Robert?" the gunner asked in mock bother. "No time for bets and I didn't get to crack heads!"

    "Gordy, you shameless land lubber, polish your brass cannon and wait for the enemy. You know I like a taut ship." The captain was grinning as he delivered the admonishment. He stretched down a hand to caress the ears of the tomcat that had appeared as if through the bulkhead and was stropping his legs, as he reached for his steaming bowl of Ipsy Wipsy stew with the other.

    A heavy gust slapped the ship, rocking them sideways. Creaks from the timbers created an eerie atmosphere, made creepier by the guttering of the lamp flames. Quiet clumping footsteps from aft and below presaged the arrival of another, and a woman stepped into the cabin. Ever the gallant, the captain rose to greet her.

    "Captain," she spoke, "While I know you enjoy the vitality of a storm, and Frank likes his meteorological studies, I find I cannot sleep. May I?"

    Bowing, he replied, "As you desire, lady Marion."

    "Thank you, Sir," she nodded back. She turned and reached the door staggering over another sway from the waves, and pulled it open too easily in the buffeting winds, stepped through and reached the rail in another jerky step. The deluge sheeted down but seemed to clear her as if deflected by an invisible umbrella.

    Many who work energies require preparation and ritual. The elderly lady was quite beyond such trifles, and simply raised her right hand over the sea. In seconds, the rain had subsided, the wind slackened to a slightly gusty breeze, and the sky calmed to a distant flash and rumble, clear of the ship and the harbor. She watched for a while, then returned inside, thanking the captain again as she headed below. A bark from the ship's mascot startled her momentarily, and a crewman said, "Peaslake thanks you also, Marion."

    Turning, she knelt and scritched his ears as the huge, shaggy mutt padded over. "You're welcome, faithful offog," she smiled.

    A burly man with thick sideburns and a halo of gray hair hurried past her and above with a telescope clutched in his hands. He didn't acknowledge the change in weather, instead muttering about coincidence and mythical beliefs and the superiority of science as he set the device on its tripod and began to scan the heavens. He called over his shoulder, "Edgar! Doc! Mars is up!"

    "Right there!"

    "Coming, Isaac!"

    "So when is this passenger of yours arriving?" asked the pier master. The strange ship had been here a week. While he wasn't anxious to see them off, interesting and well-behaved as they were, he was perplexed by their claim of only waiting for a sole passenger.

    "Soon," the mate replied with a nod and a glance at his watch. It was full dark now, the Moon rising over the eastern mountains. "Soon," he repeated, and dropped the timepiece back into his pocket.

    Midnight. It was cold and damp, the air thick and heavy across the still city and harbor, as it always was this time of year. Two figures strode along the dock, feet clattering on the aged gray and splintered timbers. They were far out from the shore and near the end of the stained pilings where the sloop waited. One man was tall and square, dressed in dark clothes and pea coat, left hand gripping a worn leather bag, sword held firmly under his arm. His lanky, narrow-chinned escort wore a black cloak and a suit, with three Chinese characters embroidered on his tie.

    "Is this it, then?" the taller man asked of his guide. He wasn't sure where he was or why, or who this strange robed person was who had called him from his house at this late hour, body racked with pain as always, with a suitcase and his sword. His memory was quite hazy at the moment, but he was unafraid. He was somehow sure it would all make sense shortly. And the man was familiar, in a way.

    "Right here, Sir," was the agreeable reply, with a gesture. "Please come aboard."

    Nodding, he stepped onto the plank, placing his feet cautiously. Perhaps not cautiously, but thoughtfully. His stride was one of familiarity, as if he'd done this some years before, but not recently.

    He headed for the cabin, preceding his guide. He paused to stare at the proud, tall masts, sheeted sails lashed smartly to the yardarms, ropes tight and sturdy. It was a good new ship, its apparent age an illusion. He approved of what he saw, and resumed his pace.

    His body betrayed curiosity, but no concern. As the cabin door was opened, he saw and smelled the oily glow of the lamps. He stepped through and descended the treads. They were firm, didn't creak, and were another hint as to expert care of the vessel.

    The crew waited below, some dozens of them. Many wore swords, a few pistols, others carried assorted apparatus, a handful wore the robes of those who worked spiritual or planar power. The nearest were clearly visible, the others fading into the warm gloom.

    "Ladies," he said, "gentlemen. It appears I'm expected." He looked at the faces gathered around him. There was no answer immediately, but there was a tense eagerness behind the polite stares. "I see," he said, nodding thoughtfully. The faces were familiar, as was his guide's, now. "I know where I am, then," he said at last, smiling gently.

    "Welcome!" they chorused. Hugs and handshakes and cheerful greetings broke the solemnity, and not a few tears flowed.

    The tears were followed at once by steaming mugs of grog, whisky, ale, mead, and Irish coffee. Music was struck, and the tableau and silence disappeared in the mounting roar of what was almost a wake.


    It dawned a clear, crisp morning, promising a fine, breezy day. Gleaming cumulus lazed across the azure dome of sky. All hands gathered on deck as the planks were pulled, the ropes cast loose, and the dockers shoved the ship clear. Eschewing the offer of a tow out, the captain shouted orders and crew swarmed to hang royals and topsails. He watched them, reminiscent of so many spiders, and turned to the newest crewman. "So how's your health?" he asked, imperiously but with a grin that gave lie to the attitude.

    "Quite excellent, actually," was the response, the tall man breathing deeply of the salt air, revitalized and surprised by it. The pain had vanished as if it never existed.

    "Then man the sails!" came the order.

    "Aye aye, Captain!" was the immediate reply, with a huge grin.

    He turned as the captain called again, "And Poul?"

    "Yes, Robert?"

    "Welcome aboard again. Now let's get out to sea where we belong," he said. Turning, he bellowed, "Lynn, plot us a course for Hawaii. I need some warm nights to shake off the Frisco cold!"

    "Can do. Doug, what's the least likely direction to take?"

    The Long Voyage turned eagerly at her master's touch, seeking again the deep water, deep skies, and solitude she was built for. As she cleared the harbor mouth, the new crewman yanked loose the ropes on her forward mainsail, and it tumbled billowing into place, the motto sewn to it in bright gold thread, "TANSTAAFL," challenging the wind.

    © Michael Z Williamson

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