Chapter 1 - The Less than Stunning First Impression
Somehow, when I found him, he had talked himself into the good graces of a steamer’s press gang. They were getting him good and liquored up for the surprise of his lifetime, an all expense paid cruise to the South Pacific and back.
“Lawrence, my boy,” said the particularly beefy foreman of the gang, “just wait till you see the girls in Tahiti.”
“Dude,” said Larry, “you have no idea. Last year I was in Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. Mtv was there and there were these chicks who, at this one party got some ping pong balls and…” he took a sip and crossed his eyes. “What’s in this anyway?” He gestured toward his flagon.
I should have left him be, but I took pity on him and his flannel and his No Fear T-shirt. How he’d stumbled into Mark Twain’s San Francisco, I’ll never know. I doubt he knows, but whenever I ask, he insists it was intentional. I think he’s just full of shit.
“My special cocktail,” said the foreman, his arm around Larry in the avuncular manner of con men and pickpockets, “a pint of ale, a shot of whisky and a little secret ingredient I picked up in Chinatown.”
“Oh,” said Larry, “that’s good. For a minute I thought you were trying to roofie me.” He took another drink, then did a spit take. “Wait a minute. You are trying to roofie me, you sick bastard.”
So long as he was going to put up a fight, I thought I might as well step in.
“Let the kid go, Cap,” I said, letting show an ugly little piece of metal I keep up my sleeve for moments like this. Not a gun, no, guns don’t always communicate what you want them to. Show up in the wrong century with a gun and no one will take you seriously until you start making noise with it, and then you’ve given someone an idea and changed the course of history. No, this ugly piece of metal was one of those hideously vicious looking knives like they sell in truck stops in the middle of Arizona. It might be designed for fighting, or it might be a prop for a Klingon sequence in a Star Trek movie, either way it looks like it could put a hole in someone when wielded by an unstable individual. And only an unstable individual would choose to wield such a thing. At least that’s the theory.
“That’s quite a harpoon you’ve got there, whaler,” said the gang foreman.
“Aye,” I said. Damn. My ugly piece of metal looked like a harpoon point. Not outright unsettling, the way I’d hoped, but more par for the course in a sailor dive like the one we happened to be in. Suddenly I rifled through whatever mental notes I still had on Moby-Dick. Not much. All I could really remember is that those whalers were crazy fuckers, and maybe that could still play into my hand.
“Woah, guys,” said Larry, the horrible time traveler. “It’s cool. No need to, you know, go poking each other or anything. I know this is Frisco. I just didn’t know this was that kind of a bar. Why don’t I just settle up,” he said, taking one of those crappy orange Velcro wallets out of his back pocket and waving to the barkeep. “And I’ll move on to another venue, hopefully one with some college girls, if you know what I mean.”
“Ah, Lawrence,” said the foreman, “I’m afraid that our ship is sailing within the hour and we still have a couple vacancies in our crew.” Suddenly, it became clear that the entire bar was, in some way or another affiliated with the impressments operation. Barkeep, bouncers, even the whores joined in the ring around us that promised nothing but pain. “And we could always make use of an experienced harpooneer.” The foreman grinned in a way that showed me press gang foremen were every bit the crazy fuckers that career whalers are.
“Jesus, Cap,” I said. “At least buy me a drink first.”
I’d been in these kinds of situations before, and since the nature of my travel was of the pocket watch variety, all I had to do was wait for a quiet minute alone and, poof, I could be gone. But damned if I didn’t feel responsible for Larry, and for what he might do to the timelines. I didn’t know what the nature of his travel was, and I doubted he knew either. He could have been a Natural, I supposed, with the innate ability. But Naturals usually had the problem of not being able to bring their clothes with them. This guy looked like he’d just got kicked out of a Pearl Jam concert. So, for his sake, and the sake of the continuum, I had to keep an eye out for him. At least until I had an opportunity to be find out what he knew.
Reluctantly, I turned my weapon over to the foreman and gestured that I would follow where he led. The press gang were surprisingly gentle on us after that. Perhaps they felt a little sorry for us, knowing which ship we were bound for.
“Stick close to me,” I said, I said to Larry. “And do what I do.”
“Dude,” said Larry. “Are they taking us to a rape cage to harpoon us?”
“Not before we’re past the 12 mile limit,” I said.
“12 miles,” said Larry. “What kind of speed limit is that?”
“Right now, Larry, the less said, the better.”
The gang corralled us through a back room as gingerly as men who live their lives as the honest purveyors of a brutal trade can. A couple times Larry got a loving tap of a cudgel for breathing too loud. I didn’t fare too badly, having practiced the art of projecting the air of a man who knows damn well it’s in his best interest to play nice, but who also knows he can take town two or three others if things get ugly. Maybe only one or two others. It’s hard to know how strong the effect of my attitude was in the darkened stairway and the low ceiling corridors they jostled us through.
It wasn’t long, though, before we were shown to the gangway of one of the ugliest steamers I’d ever seen. She desperately needed to be stripped of barnacles, repainted and, while they’re at it, burned for firewood. I was surprised it could stay afloat, much less leave port. No wonder the skipper had trouble keeping her crewed.
“Welcome aboard the SS Dogturd,” a sailor said as we made our way onto the deck.
“That’s what we call her,” the sailor said. “If you care to read the proper name off the bow, we’d all love to hear what it is.”
“Dude,” said Larry. “I’ve been to some divey places, but I don’t know about this boat.”
“Oh, she surprises all of us,” said the sailor. “Don’t you worry.”
“I don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve seen the future.”
“Have you now?” said the sailor.
“Yes,” I said. “I believe it involves young Larry and I in a very hot place shoveling coal.”
“… and a rape cage,” said Larry. “I trusted you, old dude. But this is bullshit.”
The sailor laughed, cackled really, until he doubled over in a brief coughing fit. Recovering himself, he patted Larry on the back and said, “that’s the old Dogturd spirit. Right this way. That boiler’s not going to get up a head of steam on her own.”
At this point, Larry gave me the first hint of any spirit and initiative on his part by kicking me shin. I am usually slow to committing an actual violent act, but this had been building up.
“Listen, you accidental little shit,” I said, grabbing him by his thriftscore flannel collar, lifting him up off the deck. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I’m risking my own ass for you. I really don’t have to. But here you are, wandering into the middle of my business, a complete and total fuck up of whatever you are, about to bring down Lord knows what kind of damage upon yourself and everyone around you. Plus, I lost my really nasty knife thing. I loved that piece of metal. We’d seen some good times. And now it’s gone because I’ve got your sorry and ignorant butt to look out for. So just keep your mouth shut and shovel some coal. It’ll keep you alive while I figure some things out.”
The sailor intervened, prying us apart with a long handled piece of nautical equipment. “Save that energy for the engine room, lads. The Skipper will be waking up from his drunk soon. If we’re not underway, he’ll throw one of you into the fire.”
He led us below decks through the heart of the boat to just as black and sinister a furnace room as you could imagine. Soot covered every surface and each and every air molecule. Shovels and coal scuttles littered the floor by the entry. A mound of coal lay beneath the mouth of a chute protruding from the bulkhead above. Lumps of blackness hailed intermittently from the chute, replenishing the mound of every shovelful removed by some men who were already on the job. Three burly stokers formed a processional, running shovels full of the fossil fuel directly into the opened jaws of hell.
It occurred to me that it might be quite a while before I got a chance to talk to Larry one to one. I considered bailing on him.
“Wait a minute,” said Larry, suddenly connecting to the world around him. “Why are we shoveling coal? Is this like the 1800s, or something?”
I seriously considered bailing on him.