Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 23

I'm glad we're boarding the ship again, there's not much to do on the island, at least not when the Captain's working, on The Firebrat I'm kept busy.

As I'm putting my things into the cabin again for our journey to Kipp, Topher comes in and throws himself down on his bed.

"Jasper's back." He says quietly.

"Who the hell's Jasper?" I ask.

"The second mate, he used to work on steamers so he's been piloting the freighter up north to unload the coal, but now he's back." He sounds very unhappy at this.

"What's the problem with him?" I'm on the floor trying to find space for my clothes and wash stuff by clearing out under my bed, and stuffing the things I remove under Topher's.

"He's Surosian." He says puzzlingly.

"And why is that a problem? You're Surosian too."

"He hates me because he blames all nobility for the war and his injuries."

Something comes back to me from the the day the pirates boarded the freighter. "He's not the man with half a face is he?"

"Yes, that's him. He got too close to a cannon when it was being fired, it wasn't even your fucking soldiers that did it."

I finally manage to put all my clothes away and stand up.

"Have you moved my stuff?" He asks, peering under my bed. He knows I did, he watched me do it.

"I needed to put my things away." I point out.

"Huh." He looks under his own bed.

"I'm off to find Tallis, don't touch my things." I know full well as soon as I'm gone he's going to rearrange everything.

"We're only going a little way way up the river Rhea, but it's deep and wide enough to sail all the way across the continent and out the top if we wanted to. I did that once with the Admiral, by the time we got to Rosheen it was winter, the ship got stuck in an ice flow and we had to wait it out for spring among the mountains, never been so cold in all my life."

I'm on watch with Tallis and am surprised by how good it feels to be back up in the rigging with him. Before we set off I was formally introduced to Jasper by Zizi, close up you can see the burn scars across the right side of his head and I found it hard to know where to look when I spoke to him. He wasn't exactly friendly, and something about him made me feel uncomfortable, but it's hard to separate the man from the way he looks, so maybe it's just that.

"Have you ever been to Kipp al Rhea?" Tallis interrupts my thoughts of the scarred man.

"No, I'd never been outside of Parnell until I sailed on the freighter."

"You'll find it a bit different from your city. It's not even really just a city, it's a city state, and run by the cartel too. That's to say they don't actually govern it, it has a so called elected president, but him and his ministers are entirely in their pocket. From what I know of Parnell Kipp's around four times bigger, it's just grown and grown over the years swallowing up smaller towns and villages around it. It's also about a hundred times more lawless. We'll all be given shore leave when we get there, whatever you do don't go into the city without someone who knows it, take the wrong turning and chances are you won't come back alive."

I'm sure he's exaggerating, it may be bigger than Parnell but I was raised in the city and I know how to look after myself there.

"There's a large echoback community in the eastern quarter and I'm going to visit some friends there, you would be welcome to come with me if you wanted, they have a daughter of around your age."

"Thank you, but Captain Quint has said he wants me to go with him, otherwise I would." Meeting some other echobacks would be interesting but Quint was very definite about it.

"Ah well, some other time drumeri, we make port at Kipp frequently."

When my watch has finished I climb down to the deck and notice Jasper talking to Topher on the other side of the ship. Topher has his back to the rail and looks like he would rather be anywhere else. I can't see Jasper's face but something about the way he's standing too close to Topher suggests he's either coming on to him or menacing him, and as I doubt it's the former I go over to investigate. As I approach Topher spots me, and Jasper turns to see what he's looking at, when he realises it's me he puts his hands on Topher's shoulder, digging his fingers in hard.

"Hello Exit, I was just saying to my young friend how the two of us should stick together being as we are both fellow countrymen, Isn't that right?" He looks at Topher, who narrows his eyes at him but says nothing.

"Topher." I say evenly. "There's something I need to show you in the cabin."

"Really?" Says Jasper. "And what would that be? Actually forget it, I don't want to know what captain's pets get up to when they're alone." He takes his hand off Topher's shoulder and pats his cheek.

"See you later your highness." He says mockingly as he walks away.

"Fucking shit!" Topher swears quietly once he's out of earshot.

"What did he want?"

"To intimidate and bully me." He replies. "You don't know what it like having someone pick on you for something you have no control over. I didn't ask to be born into the royal family."

"No, I couldn't possibly understand prejudice like that." I think he completely misses the sarcasm. "Why don't you tell the Captain what he's doing?"

"What good would that do? If the Captain said anything to Jasper he would make it a thousand times worse, and I doubt he would anyway. If Jasper was beating me up, or trying to fuck me he would be punished for it, but this is a pirate ship not some girls finishing school, I can't go and complain Jasper's being nasty to me can I?" He's got a point. "Anyway, what did you want to show me in the cabin?"

"Nothing, I was just trying to get you away from him." And people think I'm stupid.

"That was unusually nice of you. I think I will go back though while he's still prowling around."

We both walk back to the cabin together, unsurprisingly he's rearranged my stuff, half my clothes are now on my bed.

"For the gods sake, did you have to?" I say, trying to find space for them again under my bed.

"You moved my things." He points out lying down.

"Because all your crap is under my bed, I hardly own anything and still don't have space for it."

"I was here first." He opens a book and begins to read, and I start trying to put my clothes away again. While I'm trying to find space to fit everything in I notice that among Topher's belongings is a small money bag. I don't think he can see what I'm doing as I'm blocking his view, so I quickly pull it open and look inside. There's a fair number of silver coins in it, I take one out for a closer look while pretending to find a home for my jacket. On one side is a portrait of a balding man, and on the other is a winged figure with a sword, but most importantly written across the bottom are the words "one Kipp dollar". I push the bag into the pocket of my jacket, feeling my heart beating faster as I do so. Now I have some money, when we get to Kipp all I need to do is find some pretence to get away from the Captain and locate a telegraph office. Well, it's one third of the problem solved.

"Are you finished rifling through my belongings?" Topher's voice makes me jump, and I feel more than a little guilty at stealing his money.

"Yes." I say hurriedly and stand up, he looks at me strangely for a moment but says nothing. As usual I'm tired after hours spent working on the ship so I take my clothes off and climb under my blankets, and as usual I'm dozing off when Topher wakes me up.

"It's not even dark, why are you going to sleep?"

"Because I'm tired and I'm on night watch tonight. If I don't sleep now I'll fall asleep aloft and Tallis shouted at me last time I did that."

"All you ever do is sleep." He complains.

"No, all I do is work and sleep, anyway why do you care?"

"I'm bored."

"Try working, it's a good cure for boredom." I say yawning.

"Do all monkeys sleep as much as you?"

"I don't know." I say through gritted teeth. "Why don't you go and ask Tallis that question."

"No, he'd hit me."

"With good reason. Please Topher, for once will you just shut up and let me sleep?"

"You are so fucking moody." He grumbles as he goes back to his book.

At first the smell comes and goes on the early morning breeze and I think it's just the general unpleasant odour of the head being wafted aloft, but after a while it gets stronger and more constant.

"What's that smell?" I eventually ask Tallis, who's looking at the approaching land through his telescope.

"That." He says sweeping his arm out to indicate the coastline. "Is Kipp."

"I know, you've already told me, I'm trying to work out what that awful smell is."

"No drumeri, that is the aroma of Kipp al Rhea, pungent isn't it?"

"Are you joking?" How can a city smell like that?

"No, look." He says passing the telescope to me. "What can you see?"

I shut one eye and peer through the brass tube. "Um...I'm not sure, it looks like lots of tiny shacks all piled on top of each other."

"That's exactly what it is, the southern end of the city is known as the rat run. It's one giant, lawless slum, thousands of people live there."

"But why does it smell like that?"

"The city you come from, you have indoor plumbing, running water, flushing toilets, a sewer system, that kind of thing?"

"Of course."

"Well Kipp doesn't, at least not if you're poor, and as far as I know even the richest peoples houses simply have drains that lead straight to the river."

"That's disgusting." I protest.

"Yes, it is. Welcome to Kipp."

As we sail up the mouth of the Rhea the smell gets even stronger. The slums run along both banks of the river, which itsself is brown and sludgy looking with trails of slimy foam streaked across the surface, it has a constant supply of rubbish and discarded objects floating in it, and at one point I swear I see a dead body.

It's hot here too, not the dry heat of The Devil's fingers but a sort of wet heat that makes you feel as if you're constantly wrapped in a blanket soaked in steaming water.

"Is it summer here?" I ask Tallis, wiping sweat out of my eyes.

"Kipp only has two seasons, hot and hot and wet, just be glad we're not here during monsoon time. The river rises then and the rat run floods, you think the Rhea looks and smells bad now? It fills up with corpses then, mostly cats, dogs and rats, but the occasional person as well. You could almost walk across it on them."

"Why the hell does anyone live here?" I shake my head at the thought.

"Because it's the largest city there is, there's fortunes to be made, jobs to be had, or at least that's what people think. They come in their millions, and half of them end up here." He indicates the slums. "Like many cities it started off because it had a port, but it expanded when the cartel formed from the rich and powerful families of the surrounding areas, and many of them took second houses here. They all live way up to the north on the hills in mansions, the largest of them all being Petrovar's. He's as close to a leader as they have, and responsible for the deaths of many of our kind, along with the destruction of much of the great forest, and we work for him." He doesn't sound happy about this.

"Can't someone stop him doing all those things?"

"Who? He's the most powerful man on the northern continent, no one can stop him, and few would want to anyway, he makes a lot of money and employs a lot of people. In the past Clearwater have given him some trouble but the rumour is he had their local leaders tortured and killed, so they gave up."

I didn't know Clearwater operate on the northern continent as well, Municipal Works have had a lot of problems with them too. They are a faction who object to the building of power stations and factories, and the pollution they cause, by attacking the buildings and sometimes the people at the top too. I know the smoke makes the buildings around them turn black, but I can't see what other harm it causes, and who would want to go back to a world without electricity?

The docks in Kipp are even larger and more chaotic than Parnell's, and contain about equal numbers of steamers and sail boats. Once we are safely tied off and the gangplank is lowered the Captain declares twenty four hours shore leave for everybody which is met with a loud cheer. The ship empties quicker I would have thought possible and soon there's only a hand full of us left on board. Quint's only taking me into the city not Topher, who complains bitterly about the injustice of this until the captain threatens to chain him to his bed if he doesn't shut up.

I'm waiting for Quint by the rail wondering if I could ever get used to the heat and smell when he comes up behind me.

"Exit, haven't you forgotten something?" He asks looking me up and down. I can't think what he means and I tell him so.

"Your feet, no one in their right mind would walk around Kipp without shoes, go and put some on."

I hadn't even thought about that, I haven't worn shoes since my visit to the Admiral. I go back to the cabin to find my old boots.

"I'm not talking to you." Topher says sulkily from his bed.

"Fine." I pull my boots and socks out.

"I want to go into Kipp with Captain Quint, it's not fair." He grumbles.

I put my socks on, and realise they haven't been washed since I left home. "I thought you weren't talking to me." I say. The boots feel horrible on my feet, heavy and tight and I can't imagine how I used to wear them all the time. As I leave the cabin to find the captain again I can hear him muttering something about monkeys behind me.

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]