Little while back I posted a 9-part slice of doggerel called A Voyage to the Deep. Note: I did not spellcheck or otherwise edit that story before posting it, and in the end gave up on it – I do not like a major plot twist, and was unable to write myself a better one without tearing the whole thing apart and starting over again. So it shall remain in its present form, unless I ever get back to it.
That story is set in a universe which I’ve been working on for some time. This is a snippet from something else, set in the same world. My working title is The Saints of the Deep.
I hope it’s intriguing.
Boone took a deep breath, downed his drink, and met Clarissa’s eye. I felt my own ears pricking up – Boone was about to divulge something, something of interest to me. I rose to my feet, at once conscious of the alcohol muddling my mind and the need of my notebook, that this too would not be lost on account of liquor.
“It was very strange,” Boone said.
“I can only imagine,” Clarissa said.
“If you’ll all excuse me,” I piped up. “I’ll be right back.”
Hurriedly, I exited the room and half-sprinted up the stairs. I went down the hall there, fast as I could, to the door to my study, which I tore open.
My study, true to form, was in terrible disarray – this on account of the fact that I knew full well the whole inventory of that room, and knew precisely where every item could be found, and would not under any circumstances allow Mr. Tang, our cleaner, to enter it. I found pen, ink, and notebook, and hurried back down to the parlor, where I was disappointed to discover that Mr. Boone was already in the midst of his tale.
“…so the ship left without me,” he said.
“How old were you?” Clarissa Wilson was saying.
“Oh, uh… seventeen? Something like that,” Boone said.
I eased myself into my seat, conspicuously enough that I interrupted Boone’s telling and the whole of the party stopped to take me in – pen, ink, and all.
“Sorry,” I said, more to Mr. Boone than anyone. “For the article, you see.”
Boone looked at my notebook, hesitated, then nodded. “Fine,” he said.
It was at that moment that Caroline re-entered the room, bearing a most sumptuous assemblage of leftovers on a silver tray. This she brought to Boone, who took the meal with a look of frank shock.
“My god,” he said, looking it over. His mouth curled into a smile, and he met Caroline’s eyes. “Ma’am, I cannot thank you enough. This is superb.”
“Oh, you’re very welcome, Mr. Boone,” Caroline said. “Can I refill your drink?”
“Uh, yes, if you wouldn’t mind,” Boone said. Caroline did, which provided me an opportunity to dip my pen, open my notebook, and scribble the phrase Boone, 17 years in Pitman.
When Boone had a few bites of food in him, and we all had fresh drinks, and I had been able to scribble a short paragraph of context regarding the evening in question, Clarissa took the initiative.
“Alright,” she said, a light in her eye. “So: you’re seventeen, and you’re in Shanghai, and you’re marooned…”
It is 1860 and George Pickett Boone is seventeen years old. It had not been his intention to jump ship, but the lure of opium is like no other to a young man with a pocket full of his first voyage’s pay. By the time he returned, penniless, to the docks, the ship which had born him to that place was gone. Pick Boone is alone, in Shanghai.
He speaks not a word of Chinese, but all the same, even he can see that something is wrong, here. On the first night after the ship’s departure he sits on the docks, listening to the carousing of sailors and the loading of goods, and by chance, he turns his eyes westward, and skyward.
He sees fire, there, reflected in the heavens. He has smelled it for days already, smelled the burning of wood and had, before, assumed it just to be a quirk of this peculiar city at the edge of the world. No – the proof is writ, there, in the sky before his eyes.
The country is on fire.
A passing sailor stops, follows Boone’s gaze. He wears the blue of the French Marines, and he spits. Boone looks round at the noise, tearing his eyes from the portent in the sky.
“Few,” the sailor says.
“What?” Boone answers.
“Few,” the sailor says again.
“Few what?” Boone says.
The sailor stops, considers, seeks translation.
“Fire?” he says, and then again, more certain: “Fire,” he says, pointing into the sky.
“Tai Ping,” the sailor says.
“Where? Why?” Boone asks, but the sailor speaks no English, and presently, he moves on. Boone is left alone, on the docks, the filthy water slapping at the pier five feet below his dangling legs. The sun is absent, the sky overcast, the lights of the queer, tile-roofed warehouses dim in the distance. The smells of rot and sewage and woodsmoke and something else, something he can’t quite put his finger on, are in the air. He has not eaten for days, as the opium robbed him of his appetites. He does not remember the last time he had a drink of water.
Boone rises to his feet. He must find something to eat. He must find something to drink.
Above him, the specter of death dances in shades of orange and yellow. Beyond the walls of this city, something is happening. Something is sweeping in from further inland, from the forbidden country where no outlander is suffered by law to walk.
An evil is stirring in this place. It is coming.
And though he knows it not, Boone is in its path.
They beat him savagely. They see he is not a soldier; they see he is not one of the invincible, impossible European warriors who once ravaged this country, who came in the Black Ships and stole like ghosts down the river and who were Gweilo, because they were the specters from the sea. They see he is but a stupid boy, caught stealing a cabbage. They break two of his ribs.
He lays in the gutter, in the filth, brackish, stinking water flowing under his head and around his eyes. He weeps. He clutches at his sides, tastes blood in his mouth, and with a whimper he manages to roll himself over.
Now he lays flat on his back, the water soaking him, but he does not care. He lays that way, and stares into the sky.
He sees the fire, dancing there.
He wonders what it means.
The boots are shiny. They are a span of six inches from Boone’s nose as he opens his eyes – it is sprintime, and these the tropics, and the clouds pen in the heat and steam the city like a clam. The boots are shiny.
Boone breathes, and looks at the boots. He becomes aware that their owner is speaking to him, addressing him, and it is with every ounce of willpower that Boone has left that he turns his eyes from the boots, the legs, the waistcoat, up – all black. Even the little bow tie is black, black as the mustache, black as the main of wavy hair which hangs about the man’s shoulders. He is American, and he is speaking to Boone.
He kneels down, takes Boone by the chin, and stares long into his eyes. He is askign if Boone can walk, and Boone does his best to nod, though he is not sure that’s the case. He is asking if Boone is an American, and he is. He is asking if Boone can carry a rucksack, and he can. He is asking if Boone wants a job, and he does.
And he is in the back of a wagon, looking back across ranks of coolies, conical hats catching the sun and carrying crates and sacks on tent poles which sag under the weight. He is looking back, toward the walls of Shanghai, now some few miles off. The suburbs, with their populations of English and French are fading away to either side. The country here is swampy and thick and it stinks as bad as the gutter did. The wagon wheels catch in the muck and the coolies throw their shoulders into the wheels until the wagon is free again. Boone fades.
And rice is being put in his mouth, and gutrot grog to chase it with.
And he is awake in the night, and he hears the insects in the swamp, and the snoring of men about himself, and through the open tent flap he can see fire in the sky.
And he has a revolver in his hand, is being told that it’s a Colt by the rangy, stocky Scotsman in the ragged dress of a merchant mariner. He is told that the cost of the gun and munition will be subtracted from his pay. Boone understands.
And his savior, the man in black, is Frederick Townsend Ward, and he stands up on the trestle table in the midst of the camp, a cup of rice wine in one hand and a gun in the other, and he fires a round into the sky. His army, some two hundred souls hailing from Iceland to Portugal, cheers.
And Boone is drilling in the mud, marching out-of-step with the man beside him, and the Scotsman thwacks him hard across the back with a switch.
And he is being told the plan. He is being told the route. He does not remember – he doesn’t know where Songjiang is anyway.
And he is marching. They are all marching. They are all drunk.
The assault will come under cover of night. The Taiping, the longhairs, the enemy does not know that they are coming. The scaling ladder is heavy, and it cuts a deep groove in the meat of Boone’s shoulder. They are five men to each ladder, and the man next up the ladder from Boone is drunker than most.
There is no moon. There are no stars. There is only the army of Frederick Townsend Ward, in the pay of the Empire, and the city which awaits them.
A they are almost at the walls. They are so close. It is as Ward said it would be; the ladders will go up, the army will go up and over, and they will open the gate, and the city will fall, and a hundred thousand dollars will be in the army’s coffers.
Everything is going to be OK.
Boone feels the weight of the Colt, stuffed into his wasteband. He still can’t hit anything with it yet, not that that matters. He’s a ladder man. That’s all he has to do, is throw up the ladder. THat’s all he has to do.
And from somewhere behind him, away down the column, comes drunken singing. And drunken swearing, commandments for silence, more swearing and singing. Boone twists around, as best he can under the weight of the ladder, trying to see – but everything is dark. Everything is night.
He can only hope that the enemy sleeps soundly.
The singing goes on.
And the crack of the guns and the screaming and the shouting and the thud as a man falls ten, twenty, thirty, god-only-knows how many feet from the tops of the walls to the ground. He hits, and Boone can hear the bones snap like twigs.
Boone is huddled in a ball at the base of the wall, not far from the ladder. He does not know what to do. He can’t see anything. He can’t hear anything, except for screams of agony and shouts in Mandarin and Portuguese. From near at hand he hears the short, sharp syllables of the Chinese tongue and brings his gun to bear – but he sees nothing. He does not know if it’s a longhair or one of the coolies – he does not know. He fires anyway. He doesn’t know if the bullet lands.
And they are coming. They are coming with torches and swords and Boone sees a man run through with a spear. The man screams and blood pours out of his mouth, down is front, his eyes rolling and bright, bright white. He falls. Boone is screaming.
And then the call, in English: retreat! Retreat! And Boone doesn’t know how to retreat, where to retreat to, how to fall back. He doesn’t know where anyone is, he doesn’t know how, or where, or why. He doesn’t know.
He feels the revolver slip from his hands. He feels his own hands, is if moved by some other, reaching up and covering his ears. He smells earth as he pitches forward, rolls into a ball, and begins, quietly, to weep.
“We were routed,” Boone said, pushing a cut of roast around on his plate. “That’s when I was captured.”
A quiet murmur went around the room.
“Captured,” I found myself saying. I’d had no idea.
“Yes,” Boone said.
“For how long?”
Boone swallowed nothing. “Five years,” he said.
“My god,” Randolph said. “Did they… were you well treated?”
Boone thought on that question for a long time. For an instant he was back. For an instant he was with Rengan again. For an instant, he was looking into the sky.
“I was,” he said.