Chapter Seventeen: And then some other people also thought OTC was slightly unhinged
“Well. Okay. I guess I can climb another mountain.”
“This one looks a lot steeper than Oregon.”
Faye flexed one calf, then the other, knowing that no amount of onboard preparation would prevent her from falling on her face the moment her feet met land.
“This is Quito?” Joss asked, watching the water lap up over the nearest ring of roofs.
“Well. No. Yes? I don’t know. This could be some sprawl from Quito, maybe? But, mostly that’s Quito,” Tarin said, pointing up at a distant peak. “It’s one of the most elevated cities in the world, Joss. And, I’d imagine, now one of the most densely populated, as well.” Islands of roofs dotted the space between their sailboat and the rugged mountain-shore. The Andes rose up out of the water, sharp and reaching. They were too close to be able to see anything much past the steep climb immediately before them.
“So, what are these?” She asked, looking at the desperate roofs, which were gasping for air in what was sure to be their last stand. Tarin shrugged.
“Suburbs, maybe? Valley homes? I don’t know. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Ecuador. There is a pretty cool volcano on the other side, though. You coming with?” Tarin asked the captain. She shook her head.
“And lose the boat? No, thanks. I’ll wait around, though. If you want a ride out, here in a few days. So long as you bring me a keg or two.”
“A reasonable going price,” Faye agreed.
“I can get you to those roofs, but then you’ll need to swim,” the captain went on. “Don’t really feel like capsizing in an alley, if you know what I mean.”
“I do. I really do,” Tarin said, brow raised, “especially since you used literally no euphemisms.”
“Literally, none at all,” Faye agreed, pushing Tarin over the side of the boat. The captain grinned at her.
“I knew I liked you. You ride for free, next time.”
“Why, thank you,” Faye said, curtsying as best she could in weatherworn, threadbare trousers.
“Careful, now,” Joss said, strapping Baby to her front with a sling made of some patched-over burlap sacks and a good length of rope, “or it’ll go to her head. And it’d swell so big, she wouldn’t be able to keep it afloat. And then where would we be?” She handed Faye their packs. They were pretty light these days. They had almost no food, anymore, and couldn’t be bothered to hold on to more than one spare pair of mildewing clothes at a time. Lots of tarp, though. And a handle of triple-distilled rice brandy that Joss was making them save for a “rainy day,” which, yes, she did say completely seriously every time. Faye was pretty sure Joss meant to waste the stuff on a medical “emergency,” if the need arose. Faye had had half a mind to produce one such emergency, just to get the self-appointed quartermaster to unstopper the stuff.
“And to think, when we first met, you couldn’t recognize a simple joke. And now look at you. A budding sarcassimo, almost ready to go pro.”
“Do you think Tarin’s having difficulties with the mermaids?” Joss asked, ignoring Faye, staring over the side of the boat at the spot where Tarin had fallen in.
“I certainly hope so,” Faye said, strapping the packs to her back, wrapping them with tarp and rope, and tucking it all inside her pants, which she belted as tightly as they would go. She saluted the captain, checked Baby’s straps, then vaulted over the side of the boat.
At this point in her life, being in water was little different than being out of water. Maybe she felt a little calmer under. Less noise.
A stance which she seriously revised once she was able to process the merpeople melee that was happening below the surface. Hundreds—she would say thousands, but she’d been accused of hyperbole in the past and wanted to be taken seriously and so undershot her guesstimate—of glittering merpeople jetted around in what could only be described as an oceanic carnival. Which was leaps and bounds brighter than a not-oceanic carnival. The merpeople’s glittering skin and shimmering tails bent water and intercepted the sun’s rays, producing prisms upon prisms upon prisms of refracting light. Faye had to blink for a solid thirty seconds before she could even begin to understand what she was seeing. Which was, as previously mentioned, nothing less than a full-fledged oceanic carnival. Which the merpeople would have taken offense to, if they had heard her thoughts. This was something of a sacred space for them, you should know, and absolutely no buying or selling or trading was occurring. Or parlor tricks, or rides, or games of any kind. But there were stony booths in abundance, and the merpeople equivalent of a tent-city (not tents like we have, mind you, though there were poles stuck together in gently bounded ways, and many a colorful thing ornamented these poles, setting them apart. The only thing the makeshift dwellings all held in common was a thickly braided cord of kelp or seaweed, anchored in something secure and central, like the ground or a nice boulder. Mermaids attached themselves to these kelp cords when they slept so that they could be assured to wake up in a place near where they fell asleep). Merpeople, busy as they were not buying or selling or trading, swam and sang and thronged and chatted and cooked for each other and swapped stories with one another. But mostly, Faye assumed, they jetted in and out of the tear. She thought she could make out where it was. The gentle miasma bending through the otherwise grey-blue water tipped her off. As did the fact that this was where the majority of the mermaids were congregating, and in a much more reverent way than they were doing in the surrounding parts.
She had to go up for air. She had forgotten that that was a need of hers, mesmerized as she was by the rainbow of carnival-not-carnival. She kicked up and surfaced, gasping and coughing and blinking, surprised that she was still surprised when the saltwater stung her eyes.
Tarin had been held up by the same wonderment as her, and was only just reaching the closest roof. He pulled himself up onto it and turned, eyes a little distant. The Caption sailed the boat between him and Faye. She heard Baby squeal a little at being lowered, with Joss, onto a non-wobbling landmass. Well, landmass-ish. Faye paddled around the aft and was soon with them on the roof. She smiled at them, thinking that they all made a rather funny—albeit incredibly attractive—apocalypse family.
Joss looked a little green, though Faye couldn’t tell if it was the seawater, the sea diet, the sea legs, or the light bouncing up off the sea. So many options. She retched, which only narrowed it down by half. Tarin held her hair back as she coughed up some more blieous miscellany. She splashed her face with water, and succeeded at remaining mostly composed. Minus two little hiccups. She checked the straps on Baby’s sling. Baby had, unsurprisingly, managed to sleep through the whole thing. Resilient little bugger.
“Just holler,” the Captain said, “and see if you can’t find a portable desaliniser.”
“Ya, and a unicorn, and a flying purple dinosaur, while we’re at it,” Tarin said, sighing. The captain laughed.
“Just bring me a keg,” she called, spinning the wheel and steering the little boat away from the city. She was the size of ship-shaped dandelion in no time.
As one, they turned to face the Andean highlands. They were quite large, Faye decided. And looked like they’d be a pain in the butt to climb. Which was probably a good thing. She was starting to feel a little soft in the derier.
“What do you think their deal is?” Joss asked. Faye thought she meant Tarin, and had about a half dozen thoughts ready to go, but then she looked and saw that Joss wasn’t looking at Tarin or the mountain. She followed the other woman’s gaze and found herself stumped.
“What do you think their deal is?” Faye asked. Joss raised an eyebrow, but said nothing once she reminded herself that Faye was far too much of a comedic genius to waste time with mimicry. At least, that’s what Faye thought happened. She still couldn’t be entirely sure what went on inside the other woman’s head. Not for lack of trying.
And indeed, there was a person on a roof some half-mile away. Faye couldn’t tell if they were an adult, a tween, or a really tall child. They were laying out on the roof as if to sunbathe, and every inch of them exuded lethargic despondence. Well, tried to exude, anyway. Lethargic despondence isn’t really the “exuding” type, as I’m sure you know. Layers of sodden clothes clung to them in a blobby, clumping way, and Faye thought they probably smelled like fermenting seaweed. She, herself, was three days away from going full-mermaid. Soaking-wet cotton just wasn’t worth it.
“Why haven’t they walked in?” Tarin asked, glancing from the person to the mountain. “Do you think—“ he paused, frowning, “you don’t think there’s some sort of king-of-the-hill situation going on, do you?”
“We could ask,” I said, “but it sort of looks like they just want to die on that roof.”
“We should go ask,” Joss said, nodding in agreement, eyes scanning the islands of roofs, looking for the best route over.
Faye frowned, looking from the possible routes to Joss to Baby and back again. Joss hadn’t quite managed “swimming with a toddler strapped to your body” yet. Hadn’t had to, thankfully. Faye thought she could make the jumps, though. The roofs weren’t too far apart, and she didn’t think they’d be too slippery to stick the landing. She’d done more difficult feats, anyway.
“Hand me Baby,” she and Tarin said at the same time. They had even held out their hands within a half second of each other. Joss simply rolled her eyes.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, sitting, then sliding down to the roof’s edge and dangling her feet into the water. Two heads appeared almost immediately, which made Tarin jump and Faye nod thoughtfully. Of course Joss had gotten along with them swimmingly. Of course they would help at a moment’s notice. Of course they had just been waiting around for any sort of cue. Joss just had that sort of face. Or aura. Of course. Well, Joss, or Baby. Either made sense.
“Have you spoken with that person, over there?” Joss asked of Ronda and Lamina. They followed her gaze to see the aforementioned despondent sunbather.
“No, I haven’t,” Ronda said.
“Me neither. Should I?” Lamina asked. “A lot of times those sorts of people don’t talk back. When they don’t expect to see us, they won’t. You know?”
“I could imagine,” Joss said, nodding to herself. “Can you take us over there? I can swim a little, and all, but I don’t want the baby to go under.”
And then of course Ronda and Lamina were cooing and fawning and smiling and just generally besides themselves with helping. Baby, then, was who they were enamored with. Not Joss. Though maybe her a little, too. Faye supposed there was nowhere written it couldn’t be both. And Ronda certainly had a way of looking at Joss. They had fully managed to unsling the child and had it halfway into a floating basket fashioned from who-knows-what before Faye could even blink. Were those shells in the basket? And… butterflies?? And then Joss was effortlessly floating through the spaces between the houses. Faye couldn’t see who was holding her up, but more merpeople must have been involved because Joss was not that good a swimmer. Faye supposed the sacral carnival below could stand to spare a few sets of fishy hands.
Faye hopped from roof to roof. Well, the first two were more of a wobbly hop and a clumsy tumble. But after that it was sure-footed hopping.
“There it is,” she said, patting her legs, “I haven’t forgot about you, I promise. I really didn’t mean to ignore you like that. But, see, we had to get on that boat. But not again. Not for a while, anyway. I promise. It’ll be nothing but leaping and climbing and running for some time. How does that sound?”
“Yes?” She glanced at Tarin, wondering what he could possibly have to say. But he just grinned at her.
“What?” She asked again, somersaulting onto the next slick surface.
“See, it’s that thing where there were too many things I could say. And all were too easy. And so instead of picking one, I savored them all. And had a nice little private session of jokes, all to myself.”
“What a weirdo,” Faye muttered under her breath, vaulting onto the next roof. She stopped there, gauging the situation. The sunbather had noticed their impending arrival, and had barely bothered to sit up. Joss and Baby were closer, though they, too, had slowed. Faye studied the person, wondering if she should have some sort of plan, some sort of conversational opener.
Faye jumped the last roof, deciding it was probably fine. The stranger bolted upright, startled by her intrusion.
“Wha-can I help you?” They spat, scowling up at Faye. She stared down into their face. His face, she thought, now that she could see the five’o’clock shadow. He had spoken in spanish. Heavily accented, though, and Faye thought it sounded like european spanish. She hadn’t been “usteded” in a while.
She opened her mouth to ask her first question but the words died on her lips.
“Holy sweet mother,” she said instead, eyes widening at the sight of the little bauble hanging from the man’s neck. Sorry, “amulet.” She rolled her eyes, remembering how ridiculous she thought secret societies were. “Tarin, I think I found your Leaguer.” By that time Tarin and Joss had caught up. Baby was still just floating in its little basket, Ronda cooing over its little head.
“I thought you said we were meeting him in Quito?” Faye said, frowning, looking up towards the city further up the mountain.
“That’s what I was told,” Tarin said, staring at the man, who was watching them, eyes squinted against the weak, watery sun. He got to his feet, gaze darting from person to person. Faye had to reassess her assumptions about his body. Well, his physical capacity. Leaguers were notoriously obsessed with endurance training and westernized martial arts. “Asian fusion,” she’d heard Tarin call it.
“We are in Quito,” the stranger said, frowning irritably.
“I mean, sort of,” Tarin replied, shrugging, “we’re still a good few days’ trek from the city proper, though. It’s up that way.” Tarin pointed up. The stranger’s frown turned into a scowl.
“No, this is… no, we’re in… no,” he finished huffily, his eyes darting from them to the mountain behind him. “No, this is Quito, this is the place, this is… no, who would build a city that far up, that doesn’t… no, this is Quito.” He looked pretty miserable.
Faye reached out and patted him on the shoulder. He let her do it. Barely.
“There, there,” she said, “it’ll be okay. You’re pretty close.” She turned to Tarin, whispering, “I think he’s a bit gone, actually.”
“I am not,” he spat, his mouth a gash of grimacing anger. Faye held her hands up, surrendering the point.
“Chimie?” Tarin asked, deciding to deliver the message and be done with it. The stranger looked at him, eyes wide, all anger drained from his face.
“No. That’s who I’m waiting for, though. Have you heard from him?”
Tarin all but rolled his eyes. Faye did roll hers.
“You’re… waiting for a person… you arranged to meet in Quito… in the drowned valley suburbs outside of Quito… and are surprised that he hasn’t shown up yet?” She asked. The grimace returned, though this time it came with a sharp, defensive edge.
“It made sense at the time,” he muttered.
“I see,” Tarin said, scratching at his head. Which made Faye’s scalp start to itch.
“Well, we’re going to keep heading up and in,” Tarin said, “you’re welcome to come, if you want. Or, when—if, I should say—we find him, I’ll send him back your way.”
The despondence had returned to the stranger’s face. He watched the water out of the sides of his eye.
“I… I don’t know if I can see him,” he muttered. “I lost the manifestation.”
“The manife—the girl. I lost the girl. I’m waiting on her to come back.”
“Lost?” Joss asked, eyebrow raised, eyes searching their immediate surroundings for places to hide. She found very few. Almost none, some could say.
“She went into the water yesterday. The little devil hasn’t come back.” He said it through gritted teeth. “I went looking for her, but couldn’t see much of anything. Too many fish.” That was one word for them, Faye thought, wondering how somebody could confuse a city’s worth of merpeople for “fish.” He did look half-starved, though, so… she cut him some slack.
Joss bit her lip, glancing back at Baby. Tarin was sighing.
“Man, I don’t… I don’t think she’s coming back,” he said gently, “you don’t have to wait for her.”
The stranger looked up at him, stubborn.
“It’s not like that. She didn’t drown. She can’t drown. She can’t die. She’s not alive, to die. She’s somewhere, hiding. She loves her little games.”
“Mmhmm. Okay,” Tarin said, nodding in an overly supportive sort of way. “Well, maybe she swam to the shore. Maybe she’s hiding in the city.”
That had, apparently, not at all occurred to the man. Again, he looked half-starved.
“Right,” he murmured, “that would make sense. She can’t swim, though.”
Tarin, Joss, and Faye were mirrors of confusion.
“She can’t swim… but she can’t drown, either?” Joss asked. “And you’re on a roof in Quito? Just, waiting? For someone who’ll never come—“
“Come with us,” Faye interrupted, thinking he’d have a slow death, otherwise. “We can look for her in the city. How does that sound?”
He chewed on his lip, his face a storm of anger and shame. Or so she assumed. She had only just met him, after all.
“Ridiculous little devil,” he muttered, bending down and grabbing his pack, which only looked to be in slightly better shape than theirs. Better stocked with food, at least. Faye could smell the jerky from here. Faye had to re-evaluate her assumptions about his poor-decision making skills being caused by hunger. He did seem delusional—that much was written across his face. But maybe that was just him. He had joined an ancient secret organization, after all. You had to be some level of delusional to make those vows.
He jumped in the water ahead of them and began to paddle, grabbing onto to the edges of submerged homes when he got tired. Faye just kept jumping, as did Tarin. Joss let the mermaids tow her along. Baby gurgled to itself.
A funny apocalypse family, indeed. Faye watched Quito approach them, curious. This was the last thing she had going for her. If nothing came of it, she didn’t know what she’d do. Probably join the merpeople carnival-not-carnival.
“What’s your name, stranger?” Joss called to the man. He didn’t turn to face her as he answered, too intent on his paddling.
“Not OTC,” he muttered stiffly, “no matter what she says, that’s not my name.” He bobbed a little in the waves, sighing. “Tristan,” he said. “My name is Tristan.”