Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 18

The next day we sight Maston, the island where the man who owes the cartel money is holed up. From the top of the mast it looks like a tiny rock sticking out of the sea in the distance.

"Are you going to be leaving the ship when we get there?" I ask Tallis, who's looking at it through a small brass telescope.

"No drumeri, I'm a sailor not a fighter, I leave that kind of thing to the more blood thirsty among us."

"Who is then?"

"The captain and Zizi for sure, and who ever else they pick. Zizi will most likely take Xanathi as she's training her up and she's never been part of a raiding party before."

I watch the patch of land grow bigger and bigger, and as I do so I wrap my arms around myself, it's always windy this far up but the air seems to have got colder today. I'm also feeling a little pissed off, after my second watch yesterday I got back to the cabin to find it empty, which at first I was glad about as I could get some rest without being interrupted, but then I was woken a couple of hours later by Topher noisily going to bed. He made it quite where he had been, and what he had been doing, even going to the extent of complaining that he didn't know how he was going to sleep with a sore ass.

"Weathers turning." Tallis says, peering upwards. "There's a storm on it's way."

The sky is clear apart from a few tiny wisps of white, I can see no signs of rain and I say this to him.

"That's because you've been a sailor for five minutes, trust me, when you've been doing this as long as I have you know what's coming before the gods themselves do."

"Just how long have you been doing this then?" I ask, a bit fed up of him talking down to me.

"On and off, maybe fifty years, around thirty as a pirate."

"How old are you?" I can't believe he's been sailing fifty years, that would mean he went to sea as an infant, and he told me he never left the forest until he was a young man.

"Seventy two, I think. As the years pass I forget to keep count."

"Are you sure?" I stare at him. "You don't look nearly that old."

"Drumeri, you mean I don't look nearly as old as a human seventy two year old. If anything for our kind I look a little older than my years."

I stare into the distance and try to take in what this means, and he turns and smiles at me. "Sorry, I forget how little you know. You can expect to live longer, and look younger than any human."

"How long?" I ask quietly.

"Well, my great great grandmother lived to one hundred and forty four, but that's old even for us. I suppose about one hundred and twenty would be realistic, assuming you don't fall overboard in the mean time."

No wonder he thinks of me as little more than a child. We sit quietly for a while, I've never thought about what age I might die at before, but finding out I could live so long is a shock.

"Cheer up drumeri, it's a good thing." He says breaking the silence.

"Why has no one ever told me this before?" I wonder out loud.

"I doubt the humans where you grew up ever bothered to learn much about us, if as you say you were the only one in your city. It's different in the northern continent, especially around the Rhea basin, there we make up about half the population."

"I know you said that most echobacks live in the forest, but are there any echoback towns?"

"Not really, but plenty of us live in towns, sadly many have no choice, they are...well in our language we have a word for them, the best I can translate it as is "the unfortunate tailless ones"."

"There are echobacks with no tails?" I put a hand on mine for reassurance.

"The poor bastards weren't born that way, they're ex slaves. When humans take us as slaves for their rubber and cocoa plantations the first thing they do is cut our tails off. Docking they call it, it stops us from being able to climb properly, and therefore makes it much harder to escape. Some slaves manage to buy their freedom, some escape and some find themselves in the situation of their owners going bankrupt. At the start of the cocoa boom a lot plantations were set up with borrowed money that their owners could never hope to pay back."

I look at him feeling sick, I can't even speak.

"So I suppose you didn't know about the slavery either?" He asks, reading my expression. I can only shake my head.

"It doesn't happen so much now as it used to, but it's still the way some plantations are staffed. The humans come into the forest and take whole villages, they shoot us out of the trees with tranquillisers and those who survive the fall are bound and dragged away. In recent years we've learned to fight back, and the deeper into the forest we go the harder it is for the humans to find us."

He pats me on the shoulder. "Sorry drumeri, but it's the truth of what can happen to our kind, and neither of us can change it."

I think about Ry, he deals in rubber. I wonder, does he know that echobacks have their tails chopped off and are enslaved to help produce the stuff?

We've dropped anchor about half a mile from the island, any closer and the water would be too shallow for the ship. Topher comes to stand with me by the rail as we watch The Firebrat's two rowing boats being lowered over the side, followed by the rope ladders and those crew members who are going ashore scramble down them.

They are all armed with rifles that are slung across their shoulders for the journey over. The captain gets into one boat with half of the landing party, while Zizi climbs into the other with the rest. Tallis was right, Xanathi is with her, closely watching everything the first mate does.

I'm still trying to come to terms with everything Tallis told me earlier, and I don't feel in the mood for any of Topher's jibes, so I'm relieved and and slightly surprised when he leans into me and speaks quietly. "I don't like it when Captain Quint does this kind of thing, it's too dangerous. He doesn't have to go, he could stay on the ship, but he thinks he has to lead from the front."

He looks scared as he watches the captain's boat being rowed into the distance, and perhaps if I wasn't already feeling in need of comfort myself, although for different reasons, I wouldn't do it, but I put my arm around him, and he leans into my shoulder.

Time passes, one hour rolls over into two and they still haven't returned. Topher stays glued to the side of the ship, staring at the island and not moving an inch. I'm restless, both the feeling on The Firebrat and the things I learned earlier making me unsettled. Tallis tries to keep me occupied by giving me a knot tying lesson, which takes my mind off things for a while. Clyde appears out of the galley and hands round glasses of rum to try and keep the remaining crew's spirits up as we approach hour three, I notice Topher has two.

I find myself eavesdropping on Badger and Artie talking to one another in low voices, they seem to think something must have gone very wrong for it to be taking this long, and hearing the pair of old pirates say that makes my heart sink further.

A sudden shout from Topher sends everyone running for the side, the boats are returning and we all lean out to try to get a better look. As they get closer it's clear that something is not right, for a start the captain is at the oars of one of the boats, and some of the crew members seem to be lying down.

On seeing Quint in one piece Topher sags against the rail and smiles at me in relief. I can't return his smile, I can see what looks like blood smeared across his shirt and face, and many of the others are also smeared in it as well. I catch sight of Zizi, and am shocked that she seems almost totally crimson, and she's leaning over as if in pain.

The crew on the ship are throwing the ladders out as the two small boats come alongside, and we can now see just how bad things are. I realise Zizi isn't bent over in pain after all but is leaning over a figure even more blooded than her that can only be Xanathi. Some of the others have obvious wounds and a couple of the crew around me run to get a stretcher that they drop down on two lines beside the boats.

Tallis grabs me. "Drumeri, we need to go down and help, come on." He vaults over the side and I follow.

The first person to be loaded onto the stretcher is Xanathi, we try to lift her as gently as we can, but she's slick with blood and hard to keep hold of. I'm leaning out from the ladder with my tail around the rungs to secure myself, trying to stop her falling off while Tallis ties ropes around her body. She's completely still, there's no way to tell if she's dead or alive and by the time the crew above us pull her up I'm almost as bloodied as Zizi. Once Xanathi is on deck and untied the stretcher is dropped down again and we load another pirate on, I think his name is Jay, and he is very much alive, crying out in pain. His right leg from the knee down looks shattered, and is a mass of blood. After him comes what looks like a horribly broken arm and shoulder, this one's very quite but shivering violently, his skin looks grey and he's dripping with sweat.

Those who can do so get themselves up the ladders, some need our help, and once the first boat is empty the two of us secure the hauling lines to it and it's pulled up.

The only person now left in the second boat is the captain, and I catch his eye, I don't think the blood on him is his, I can see no wounds on him, but the expression on his face is almost as bad. He climbs up the nearest ladder in silence as we secure the boat he was in. Once that's done Tallis and I ascend and drop onto the deck.

The most badly injured are being tended to, Artie is trying to bandage the broken leg assisted by his brother, and Clyde is doing the same to the man with the injured arm. The captain and Zizi are leaning over Xanathi, Quint is tying a strip of cloth around her right thigh, while the first mate has a a hand full of waded cotton and is holding it to the other visks' chest, attempting to stop the bleeding from there. Both pieces of material have turned almost completely red.

Those that have more minor wounds are dealing with themselves, cleaning up with alcohol and binding, or in one case sewing up.

"Is she dead?" I whisper to Tallis who's standing behind the captain.

"Maybe, if she's not she must be close, it's hard to loose that much blood and live, but visk are different from us, so who knows?"

Vakker has been standing near us watching the captain and Zizi work on Xanathi as well, and he suddenly steps forward, kneels down beside her still body, takes her hand and says something that sounds like the start of a prayer.

"Stop it!" Zizi shouts at him. "She's not going to die." Her voice sounds less sure than her words though.

The captain looks up from Xanathi and seems to notice for the first time that most of the crew are watching him. "What the fuck are you all just doing standing around? Get us out of here now!" He shouts.

Everyone who's able jumps to obey. The capstan is turned to raise the anchor, while Tallis and me go aloft to get the sails out with help from some of the others. We get under way faster than I would have thought possible. From above I watch Xanathi carefully lifted and taken below, followed by the man with the smashed leg.

"That'll most likely need to come off before gangrene sets in, poor bastard." Tallis says, pointing to him being hoisted onto a stretcher.

Once the deck is clear of the injured buckets of seawater are hoisted up and the deck is scrubbed clean of blood, followed by the crew who wash themselves down. We descend and join in, by the time I'm clean the water in my bucket is pink along with the rag I'm using as a wash cloth.

"Go and get changed into some fresh clothes." Tallis orders once I'm done, and I don't have to think twice about obeying him. In the cabin I find the captain sitting on my bed talking to Topher. He's cleaned himself up also but his face still looks grim.

"Hello Exit." He says tiredly. "Thank you for the help you and Tallis gave in getting the wounded back on board."

"It was the least we could do, how's Xanathi?"

"Still alive, but I don't know for how much longer. Vakker wants to give her the visk last rites, but Zizi won't let him, she refuses to admit Xanathi is going to die."

Topher is sat on his bed with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them, he looks very young and very scared.

"Excuse me captain, I need to get some clean clothes." I say, indicating the space beneath my bed.

"Of course, I have to go and check on Jay, I think Clyde's going to take the injured leg off tonight, I want to talk to him before it happens." He stands up to go and kisses me on the forehead as he passes. Once he's gone I find my clothes and change.

"Did he say what went wrong?" I question Topher.

"There were many more people on the island than they were expecting, all of them armed. It turned into some kind of battle, he says they managed to do what they went there to do, but he thinks that someone warned the debtor that they were coming."

"That sounds likely, but who would do that?"

"Who knows, the cartel aren't all of one mind, there's always been infighting among the members." He rests his head on his knees and lets out a pained sigh. "The captain could have been killed instead of Xanathi." He says quietly.

"She's not dead yet." I remind him.

"She's as good as, and it could have been him." He sounds like he's about to cry.

I go and sit beside him, and for the second time that day I put my arm around him. "But he wasn't." I say firmly, pulling him toward me.

What would happen to Topher without Quint? The crew would have no reason to keep him on board, he's not exactly popular with them, and I can see Tallis suggestion of leaving him at some unknown port could well become a reality.

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