Art Pact 221 - Boat across the silent sea


Between my home town of Levitia and the fishing colony of Gaspar there is an impassable sea, as there is between all of the colonised islands. The silent sea, into which no man or woman can plunge for more than a few seconds without their lungs burning, their skin bloating. Our town walls protect us from it, but to travel without Levitia, to visit the colonies, we rely on the ferry boat. I am fifteen when I take my first trip on the boat, the right age for a woman to begin to follow her mother's trade. She looks me up and down that morning. Her expression is serious - my mother frowns a great deal, especially around me, and the lines it forms in her forehead have become fixed there by overuse so that she presents a stern aspect even when she is in her most amiable of moods.

"Cassie," she says. "No school this week. We're going to Gaspar."

I am excited and terrified at the same time. The ferry to Gaspar is the safest of all of the ferries, but it has still gone missing before. The ferry, operating a fixed schedule, frequently turns up (at our end, or Gaspar's) with no passengers. Perhaps once a decade this is not routine, but a disaster. Such tragedies are subtle - it sometimes takes days for someone to discover that a passenger they expected had not simply stayed over at the other end of the route for a few more days. But by then others have travelled, have spoken to the port authorities at Gaspar and confirmed their records with Levitia's, and it becomes clear that a ferry that arrived empty had left the port full.

It would be easy, of course, if there were someone on every ferry. It has been proposed - a ferryman who will travel with the ship on every voyage. If he or she does not arrive, we will know straight away. But finding a volunteer for such a role is more problematic. To travel with the ferry always would be a death sentence. One would be of use only when one was lost, a shameful state of affairs. My mother says that a ferryman would end up drunk all of the time, and the ferry ride would be less enjoyable for it. Cooped up on the boat with the stink of alcohol and some pathetic lush, she says, hardly puts one in the right mood for transacting business at the other end.

I put on my best clothes, but my mother shakes her head and sends me back upstairs for something a little less ostentatious.

"It doesn't do to look too prosperous when you're talking to your suppliers," she tells me. "You want to aim for a responsible appearance. That way they won't think you're profiting too much at their expense, but on the other hand they'll feel comforted that you're going to be sticking around, not going bankrupt and leaving them high and dry when time comes to sell their next harvest."

After a few minor wardrobe changes she's satisfied that we are presenting a unified front in our appearance, and she hands me a token for the ferry. It's carved out of wood, and has our family crest at the top with my name below it. I check the other side - nothing. That's where a limiter icon would be, that would restrict me only to the Gaspar-Levitia ferry. Instead my mother has given me an emancipator token. I can travel anywhere, to any of the colonies. I don't know what to say.

"Thank you," say my lips, mechanically.

My mother says nothing, and we leave for the port.

#

The ferry port is one of eight attached to the docks at the lower end of town. Each port is set out from the dockside by two gangways leading to a length of quay. The right gangway is for cargo, and is heavy and wide, taking most of the strain. The left gangway, lighter and narrower, is for passengers. We will be using that on the way out, and hopefully both on the way back. At the entrance to the quay a dockmaster examines our tokens, confirms them against our descriptions in a logbook chained to the window, and then waves us forward. We join three others waiting for the ferry. One I recognise - a policeman from one of the upper districts. Two are Gasparians, dressed in their strange golden suits that cover them from ankle to neck to wrists. The suits, although I have seen them before, still seem odd to me. To my shame it is only when one of them speaks that I realise she is a woman, so flat-chested do the clothes make her, and I wonder that there is not more outrage amongst the town folk of the colony.

"I'll bet anything that he hasn't caught that pike yet," she is saying to her companion (who is male, I discover to my relief when he replies - my powers of observation not totally inadequate).

"No saying," he says tersely. It looks a little as though he is glancing at us as he says it.

"I suppose if he called Baytis, like I told him," she continues, oblivious to his signal.

My mother, obviously taking pity on someone she knows, breaks in at this point.

"Corale, Ikthio," she says. The Gasparians turn, and the woman's face breaks out in a sudden surprised smile. The surprise is genuine, I think, the smile less so. "How lovely to see you. I don't think you've met my daughter, have you? This is Atabel."

We shake hands. She doesn't repeat their names, so I have no way of knowing which is Corale or which Ikthio, although this in itself tells me something - that it is a trivial fact as far as my mother is concerned. I am sure to learn a lot on this trip, but this is a thing I can forget and learn later if necessary.

"Pleased to meet you," I say politely.

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