by Alexander Hardison
The nameless boy pushed his pole into the black and starry water. His arms were corded tight with muscle and tangled ink that warded off bad luck, his hair was cut short against his scalp. Around him, a multitude of crafts bobbed and weaved across the river’s oily surface. Ahead of him a three-decked behemoth teemed with vacationing offworlders, tiny skiffs like his own darting around it like busy insects. Along the shoreline, the marketplace glowed and heaved like a dragon’s back, the glass towers beyond them shining like the spine of the world.
The boy’s last job had gone well, and his pocket hung heavy with coin. He rested his hand on it as the river tugged him back into its heart. The air was hot and thick, beading his neck and arms with sweat. He could just make out the dance club from here, a great wooden structure that leant out over the river on five narrow stilts. The music thumped and swam towards him. He had earned well tonight, but if he climbed that ladder it would all slip away. A few rounds of drinks, some gambling, maybe a girl, and he would be as penniless as when he woke this morning. But what was this life for, if not pleasure? The river gave, and it took away. It was the way of things.
“Upworld bounty! Top dollar worldship!” The boy turned towards the words, shouted from a skiff coming the opposite way. It was weighed down by offworlders, the pilot pushing hard against his pole. A fresh ship must have disgorged into the city, likely at Barker’s Square. The passengers wore uniforms, their skin unmarked, and they watched him with the same open curiosity as the statues and shrines along the river’s edge.
The boy considered the news as he pushed himself onwards. A top dollar worldship was a rare occurrence, and he would not fight the river’s flow. He gave the club one regretful look as he passed beneath it, closing his ears to the music which pulsed down. Offering a brief word of thanks to Memnon-Tothep, the ten-eyed god of opportunity, he began to make his way towards Barkers Square.
Word spread fast when ships like this one landed, and the water alongside Barker’s Square was crowded with skiffs. Festivals and political speeches were often held here, though the only time the boy had paid it any mind was when the championship match was broadcast from the westernmost tower. He had cheered and screamed as loud as his lungs allowed, but still the betting house had taken a week’s coin from him. He stood, bracing his bare feet on the wet wooden planks, trying to see if there was any hope of his finding a fare. Once more he thought of the club, of the music and drinks and girls. His course was set, though, and he sat down to wait.
The tiny boats bumped against each other in time with the river’s heartbeat. The girl beside him was a fan of Boojum Jack the Crabman Detective, and they discussed the latest story at great length. The serial was the only part of All Action Quarterly the boy had any interest in, and he had spent many a penniless night hunched beneath the lantern in his lodging house, reading the cramped text and admiring the brief, colourless illustrations. He had not yet found the latest issue, and did not know how Boojum could escape the pit of torture the offworld smuggling ring had cast him into. Smiling with affected shyness, the girl suggested that he come by her rooms to borrow her copy the following night. The boy agreed that this was a fine plan.
There was a burst of angry voices from the square, and a disruption shaped like a woman swept through the crowd of skiffs towards him. She stepped heavily from one deck to the next, leaving them rocking crazily in her wake. An offworlder. A sharp bolt of adrenaline coursed through him as she pivoted in the air and crashed to a halt on the bench behind him. “Get us out of here, would you?” she said through a lopsided grin. “I don’t think I made any friends on my way here.”
The boy was not so shocked as to forget how such transactions worked, and he merely watched the woman stone-faced. She sighed and dug inside her jacket, pulling out a chit and tossing it to him.
“Here,” she said, “same again when I get off.” The boy hoped that his eyes did not bulge at the amount that she had given him, and he nodded enthusiastically, the girl in the other skiff forgotten as he pushed away from the crowd.
The woman relaxed as they slipped into the current, and the boy tried to work out what the river had brought him. He examined her in the scratched little mirror set in the prow, nestled among good luck talismans and the long curve of a merwhale rib. She looked very fine, he thought, very tall and powerful, her long dark hair swept back and tied behind her head. She wore a grey uniform with a high collar and boots which reached her calves. He did not try to interpret the insignia that shimmered at her breast and shoulders – one offworld army was much the same as another. At her waist hung a sword, a long straight blade with a covered grip.
When his eyes flicked back to her face she was watching him with a soft smile. “You like that? It’s called a sabre. Part of the whole dress uniform.” She ran a hand over the hilt, and the boy saw that she wore white gloves despite the night’s sweltering heat. “Awkward thing, really. Pretty, though, and deadly enough if you’ve got nothing better.”
“Have you killed anyone with it?” he asked, unsure if this was what she wanted to speak of but willing to follow where she led.
The woman looked down at the blade, elegant features contracting briefly. “With this? No.” She looked pensively over the bow, and the boy cursed. Angered customers were poor tippers.
“You have many medals,” he offered hurriedly, “you must be very brave. Must have killed many of your enemies.”
That raised a chuckle from her. “Perhaps. Hard to tell. These are more for…doing what you’re told, you know? You don’t know who’s out there, you just set up your shots and loose them off, proton banks and arc generators and all. Dots on the sensors. You never even see the kill. Or the killer, if it’s your day to go.”
The boy glanced upwards, as though he might see these titans warring above his head. The sky was cloudless, the stars peaceful and still. “You must be very brave,” he said again, not knowing what else to say. The woman did not respond, and he returned his gaze to the river. A priest’s barge drifted ahead of them, trailing red and purple feathers behind an intricately carved hull.
“Where would you like me to take you? We have left the square behind, and there are many sights to see this beautiful night.”
The woman leaned back in her seat, giving no sign that she contained the dervish who had bounded across the maze of skiffs. “I don’t know. What do people like me do?”
The boy held the skiff still for a moment as a long police catamaran heaved into the water ahead of them, metallic faces scanning blankly in all directions. “A lot of women go to the Queen’s Rest. It’s just ahead of us, right before the Noble Bridge. The prettyboys dance there.” The boy had a whole sales pitch prepared – the proprietor of the Queen’s paid pilots for every fare dropped at her establishment – but tonight his tongue was still. Curiosity pulsed beneath his skin, as hot as the air that pushed around them. He had ferried half a hundred offworlders up and down the river, but something unique glinted beneath this woman’s surface. A stone in the river’s sand.
The offworlder did not reply, and he glanced towards the mirror. A group of crabmen were foraging in the shallows, clicking and clattering in their nonsense langue and holding up trash in their mandibles. The boy shuddered and looked away. “I am sorry,” he said, “that such a beautiful woman should have to see such unpleasantness on our world. They are shameful creatures.”
The woman shook her head, eyes momentarily clouded. “There’s more than that to apologise for,” she murmured. “Take away everything from someone and you make an animal. The only one with anything to feel bad about is the one doing the taking.”
The boy did not understand what she meant, and said nothing. The Queen’s Rest loomed beside them, a pink and gold façade that glowed in the dark. “Shall we stop?” he asked, lips clumsy with reluctance.
The woman glanced up at the hard-bodied young men that hooted and waved from the balconies. “No,” she said. “Push on.”
They said nothing as they passed beneath the Noble Bridge. The faces in the eaves had long, lolling tongues, and passengers often asked him what they meant. He invented a different story every time. In truth he did not know their meaning, nor did he care to – such things were for the high folk in their glass towers. His world was made of mud and water. The sides of the bridge were painted annually, just before the Feast of Awakening and Mirth, but the underside was bare boards and trash. The woman did not ask about faces, nor did she comment when several of the boy’s friends shouted down at them. He ignored them and bent to his work.
“What’s your name?” asked the woman suddenly, as they emerged once more into the moonlight. “My name’s Laila. What’s yours?”
“I do not have a name,” She did not reply, and he felt compelled to fill the sudden silence. “There are so many boys of my caste. To name us would be…unnecessary. We are not seen.” He had never described such things aloud – nobody of his own world would need him to, and no offworlder had ever thought to ask. “If we achieve great deeds, we may be named by those who witness them. Those who raise us up. A nickname, you would call it. It would become our name. Then we would be seen.” He had heard of it happening, but never seen it with his own eyes.
Laila grinned at him again, and he could not tear his eyes from her reflected image until she looked away. “I’ll call you Captain, then.”
“Captain?” The boy did not understand, and he wondered if she were making fun of him.
“Sure!” she tapped the palms of her hands on the outside of the skiff. “This is your vessel, isn’t it? You’re the captain. It’s as good a name as any, and I should say that you’ve earned it.”
The boy tried to shrug her words away, but they lodged in him nonetheless. He whispered the word to himself. “Captain.” Then he shook his head. “It is not I that drives her, but the passenger. I am more…a part of her.”
Laila fell quiet, and the boy said no more. He boy closed his eyes, feeling the boat rise and fall beneath his feet, the soft silt giving way beneath his pole. He listen to the city buzz and rumble around. “I came here to get a medal. Another one” She was slouched low in her seat, one glove removed and fingers trailing through the gloomy water. “Not here, exactly. The nearest artificial world. Galileo. It orbits your star, it’s where most of the officers you see here are on leave from.” The boy knew of it, but did not interrupt. “That’s what you get for ‘valour under fire’. Bravery. Killing more of them than they killed of ours.”
“Who are ‘they’?” He did not know if he was supposed to speak, but it seemed the only thing to say.
Laila shrugged. “You know, I’m really not sure. The ship designates threats and we engage them. It all moves so fast, the politics of it all, there’s confederacies forming and breaking up all the time. More than anyone can keep up with, especially while running a ship. It all gets updated from Central through the relays, we just blow up the ones they tell us to and leave the ones they don’t.” She lifted her fingers, watching the water run over her wrist. “One time, we were lining up for a full strike, moments away from loosing, and the designator turned from red to green. Five seconds later and it would have been too late to recall, and they would have been dead for nothing.” She flicked away the drops and pulled her glove back on. “Even more so than usual, I mean.”
The boy looked at his hands as he punted, knuckles marked from brawling and palms from the pole. Her words were a fever dream, and as she spoke the sky filled with nameless monsters. They were like the swarm gods of the crabmen, the reaching hungry arms that lived in the mountains at the river’s source.
They were drifting clear of the commercial district, the cacophony of the market replaced by hive pyramids and ghetto towers. The boats that passed them moved with purpose. He had still had no destination from his passenger, and he was about to ask her for one when she spoke again. “Have you ever killed anyone, my captain?”
He nodded, but did not speak. Perhaps he would be permitted to leave the matter there. “Ahead of us is the Temple Beneath the Waves, one of the few relics of the old empire. There are no waves here, of course, though some say that before the terraforming…”
“Hang on.” The edge that drove a worldship’s crew blossomed in her voice. “I’m the passenger, and I don’t want the tourist shit. I want to hear about the time you killed someone.”
The boy had lived a lifetime of obedience. “It was many years ago. I was in a lodging house and it was…it was not a good place. There were many fights. No deaths, but always the smell of it. I was tall for my age, bigger than the top boy there, and I think he thought I was a threat. One night he came for me. I do not think that he meant to kill me, but I was as afraid as if he were. I fought, I took his weapon from him…I do not remember the rest. But he died.” He thought about the pieces of glass and bone beneath his soles, his hands and forearms slick and sharp with pain. It had not been an easy thing, to kill the top boy. He had not gone quietly.
He waited for horror that did not come. Instead, Laila looked out at a pair of crabmen sitting chest deep in the water, gazing towards them with the big eyes of the inebriated or dead. “That sounds like a good reason,” she said at last. Then she shook her head and clapped her hands together, and the energetic creature who had bounded into his skiff was birthed again. “Enough of this! Enough of the dismal. Where can you and I go to be alone?”
The pole skidded across the riverbed. “Excuse me?”
She grinned rakishly. “You heard me, captain. C’mon, you’ve got to have some secret place that you like to take girls after you tell them about killing people. You told me that this craft only goes where the passenger wants. Forget that. Take me somewhere that you want to go.”
The boy’s arms were straining before he fully understood what she had said. Her words were as shocking as they were compelling. Were they all so impetuous, these offworlders? He let the river sweep him along, past the pyramids, deep into the darkening west of the city. They left the other skiffs behind, until only planetsiders passed them, great multitier residential craft that sat low in the water and workmen hurrying home in simple dinghies. The grand architecture of the commercial district gave way to squat hives and crowded ghettoes. The occasional Yggdrasil loomed between them: a previous generation’s terraforming experiments gone wonderfully wrong, now shouldered human structures aside to stretch their green and brown fronds skywards.
There was one Yggdrasil in particular that the boy was making for. It extended out over the river, roots woven deep into the water and the soil. His pole stumbled across them as he approached its bulk, though he knew every surface and obstacle of the river’s bottom, as a blind man knew his home. He took her by the hand and led her up the stairs worked in the trunk. Time worked strangely, as though he were dreaming or high, and before her knew it they were in the small cabin that overlooked the river. There was a simple cooker here, a window and a bed.
He and some friends had found this place just a few months ago, drifting lazing on a raft and letting the river take them where it would. They had been coming here ever since, to drink together or to be alone. He had never seen another person here, and wondered if this would be the night that he was caught. If it was, it would be worth it.
He did not have time to ask her what she wanted to drink before she was on top of him, strong hands running over his limbs, guiding his hands to the clasps on her jacket and within. As they fucked he could feel the metal shifting under her skin, and shivered at the knowledge that she could break his arm without effort. She mounted him, something that the river girls had never done, her dark hair spilling over them as she grunted explosively. Her breasts were small and high on her muscular body, and her eyes flashed bright in the dim room. He did not last long, and she laughed and kissed away his garbled apologies.
Afterwards, they stood at the window and gazed down at the thick curve of the river beneath them, teeming with vessels and strangely silent from this distance. She looked across the water at a hive, its thousand inhabitants clearly visible through windows left open in deference to the sweltering heat. “Kind of makes a mockery of the idea of privacy, don’t you think?” The boy did not know what she meant, and he said nothing. Eventually she spoke again. “I’m mustering out in a few months. Putting together a crew. I’ve got my eye on a ship already, just need the hands to keep her in the air. We’ll need a ship’s runner. Someone quick and small and clever. If you’re interested.”
The world was suddenly a big and silent place. The boy boggled at her, trying to see the trick, the angle by which she meant to rook him. He had nothing for her to steal, and would give her anything physical she might ask. He had heard tales of the cruel perversions of offworlders, but in that long, naked moment he discovered that he believed her. “Would I have to…” his eyes went to the bed, and she shook her head rapidly.
“No,” she replied, her eyes serious. “Never. Unless you wanted to.” She smiled once more. “And I hope very much that you will.”
He looked back out at the river. He could see it all laid out from here: the bridges, the markets, the statues and the docks. This must be how the high folk in the towers saw the world, he thought; no wonder they also saw themselves as master of it. He thought of the money not yet made on the river, the girls not yet wooed. He had many years left as a skiff pilot; then what? He had never thought farther than the next fare, the next drink. What she was asking of him seemed impossible.
He had suffered greatly in this life; been hungry more often than not, and suffered more often than not. But this was his home – could the river truly mean to guide him away from it entirely? Who would he be without it. He could already feel an ache in his heart the shape of his pole.
Laila put a hand on his shoulder. “I grew up on a forest world. We lived on my father’s estate, and every day my sisters and I would run through the forests and play. Building forts, chasing animals, finding secret places that we could call ourselves the masters of. I haven’t seen a forest like that in twenty five years, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t close my eyes and think about the feeling of bark underneath my hands, or of dead leaves beneath my feet.”
The boy nodded. He had never been to a forest, but he thought that he understood. “But you push on?”
She smiled and nodded. “I push on.”
The boy that she had named captain looked at his arms, at the story of his life etched in ink. His life, such as it was, was entirely predictable. The river only led one place, after all. The bars were full of skiff pilots who had not saved their money, as he had not, who had not prepared for the passing of the years.
The boy pressed his hands against the cool, smooth glass, looking down at the river once more. He traced its path with his eyes, under the Noble Bridge and along through the markets, swarming and turgid and dark. He watched his people passing back and forth, the currents taking them as it would. As his eyes traced its length, he realised that it did not lead to the ocean, not when seen from here. It ran up through the Narrows and the Eight, cramped between the construction and the boiling vortices, then spreading wide and golden towards the city’s edge, spilling upwards further still. It became black and clear and bright, and it was full of stars.
“The Nameless Boy and the River” (© Alexander Hardison) was published in Issue 2 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.