About the Author
Greg Bear is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Darwin’s Radio and Dead Lines. He has been awarded two Hugos and five Nebulas for his fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Even in the obscuring twilight, and behind the lightly floating veil of snow, the Wanderer was clearly no more than a humble old tramp freighter. The most imaginative, the most romantic eye could have detected nowhere about her that lean grace, those sharply cleaving contours which the landsman looks for in a craft all set to embark upon a desperate adventure.
For the likes of her, the down-at-heels support of the Hoboken pier was plenty good enough. There, with others of her kind, she blended into the nondescript background of the unpretentious old town: she was camouflaged into a comfortable nonentity. There she was secure from any embarrassing comparison with the great lady-liners which lifted regal and immaculate prows into the shadows of skyscrapers on the distant, Manhattan side of the river.
Her crew knew that deep in her heart beat engines fit and able to push her blunt old nose ahead at a sweet fourteen knots, come Hell or high water. They knew too that surrounding her engines, and surrounding also that deep steel chamber which puzzled all of them and frightened not a few, was a staunch and solid hull. Landsmen, however, drawn to the waterfront by that nostalgia which ever so often stirs those whose lives are bound by little desks and brief commuter train rides, looked over her rusted, scaling flanks and sputtered ignorantly:
“Lord! They don’t call that a sea-going craft, I hope!”
Weston, though he had taxied to the waterfront bent upon a business in which nostalgia had no part, said exactly that and drew back the hand which had been about to pass over the fare from Forty-second Street and Broadway. After all, if he had mistaken the pier, it would be a foolish extravagance to let this pirate on wheels knock down his flag and so gain the right to add an extra fifteen cents to the return charge.
Hanging tightly to his money, he lumbered out of the taxi with that short-winded dignity which marks the fat man of fifty-odd. In the same moment, an old watchman poked a cold red nose around the corner of a warehouse.
Weston hailed him:
“Hi, Cap! Is that the moving picture ship?”
Only after the cold red nose had bobbed assent did Weston pass over the cab fare, and even then there was a glint of suspicious doubt in his eye. Still hardly more than half satisfied that he had not mistaken the rendezvous, he scuffed through the light fall of snow to the Wanderer’s gangway.
“ ’re you another one agoin’ on this crazy voyage?” the old watchman demanded suddenly from the gloomy shadow of the warehouse.
“Crazy?” Weston swung around the more quickly because the adjective bolstered a conviction that had been growing in his own mind. “What’s crazy about it?”
“Well, for one thing, the feller that’s bossin’ it.”
“That’s him! A feller that if he wants a picture of a lion’ll walk right up and tell it to look pleasant. If that ain’t crazy, I want to know?”
Weston chuckled. That wasn’t so far from his own estimate of the doughty director of the Wanderer’s destinies.
“He’s a tough egg, all right,” he agreed. “But why the talk about this voyage being crazy?”
“Because it is, that’s why.”
The watchman emerged from his snug, protected niche the better to pursue the conversation.
“Everybody around the dock—and lemme tell you there’re some smart men around here even if they ain’t got such high and mighty jobs—everybody around the dock says it’s crazy. Take the cargo this Denham’s stowed away! There’s stuff down there I can’t believe yet, and I seen it go aboard with my own two eyes. And take the crew! It’s three times too big for the ship. Why it’ll take shoe horns to fit ’em all in!”
He paused but only for breath. Plainly he was prepared to bark out an interminable succession of charges against the Wanderer. Before he could re-open his critical barrage, however, a young authoritative voice put a permanent stop to it.
“Hey, on the gangway there! What do you want?”
Weston looked up toward the low deck rail amidship. Light streaming from a cabin astern and higher up outlined a figure; and in the illumination Weston felt sure, from Denham’s descriptions, that he was seeing the Wanderer’s personable first mate. There, unmistakably, was the long, young body Denham had praised. There were the reckless eyes, the full strong mouth. Weston, whose experiences had taught him to guard against spontaneous regard for any stranger, however personable, yielded for once to a swift liking. There, he admitted, was as pleasant a young fellow as a man could hope to meet—as any woman could hope to meet, he added, on second glance.
“What do you want?” the brisk demand came down a second time as Weston made his inspection.
“Want to come aboard, Mister Driscoll,” Weston replied; and grown a little more cheerful because of his liking for the mate he began a cautious ascent of the wet and slippery gangway.
“Oh, you must be Weston.”
“Broadway’s one and only,” Weston admitted. “Weston, the ace of theatrical agents, even if,” he added as he began to puff a little from the ascent, “my wind is not what it used to be.”
“Come aboard! Come aboard!” cried Driscoll. “Den-ham’s wild to hear from you. Have you found the girl?”
In the darkness Weston’s cheer evaporated. He made a wry face and said nothing, but followed Driscoll’s springing stride aft and up a ladder to the lighted cabin.
This low inclosure was invitingly spick and span, but it was furnished with the spartan simplicity which characterizes womanless quarters. The sole decorations were a mirror on one wall and a well filled pipe rack on another, unless one counted an overcoat or two with attendant hats. For the rest there were only four chairs, an oblong table of the broad squat sort favored by men who like to spread out maps for studying, an open box containing black corrugated iron spheres larger than oranges but smaller than grapefruit, and a brightly polished brass cuspidor which stood close by a foot of one of the two men waiting in the cabin.
This man was lean, and of no more than middle height. Behind a heavy moustache, his hard jaw worked slowly upon a generous mouthful of plug cut. He was in vest and shirt-sleeves. Above these a captain’s uniform cap lent an air of command, but this did not keep him from stepping definitely aside in order to leave the center of the stage to his companion.
His companion was just such a well tailored, well groomed man of thirty-five as you might run into at any stock broker’s desk; although there you would rarely encounter such an air of solid power, of indomitable will. Bright brown eyes, shining with an unquenchable zest for the adventure of living, flashed toward Weston as he entered, and an impatient voice said without preliminary:
“Weston! I was just going ashore to ring you up.”
“If I’d known that I’d have waited,” Weston answered, eyeing his wet shoes.
“Shake hands with the Skipper, Captain Englehorn,” Denham pushed on.
The man in the captain’s cap, turning from a center shot into the bright cuspidor, held out a rough, thick hand and after it had been shaken moved the box of corrugated iron spheres to make more room at the table for Weston’s chair.
“I take it you’re already acquainted with Jack,” Den-ham added, and as Weston nodded smilingly at Driscoll who smiled back, he went on, “Well! Then you’ve met a pair you’d never come across on Broadway, Old Man. Both of them were with me on my last two trips and I’ll tell you if they weren’t going on this one I’d think a long time before I started.”
There fell that little restless silence which always burdens men upon whom extreme praise has been bestowed. Then Denham dropped into his chair and eyed the theatrical agent.
“Where’s the girl, Weston?”
“Haven’t got one.”
“What!” Denham struck the table. “Look here, Weston! The Actors’ Equity and the Hays outfit have warned every girl I’ve tried to hire. And every agent but you has backed away. You’re all I’ve got left. You know I’m square. . . .”
“Everybody knows you’re square,” Weston grunted, breathing audibly. “But everybody knows, also, how reckless you are. And on top of that how can you hope to inspire confidence about this particular voyage when you’re so secretive?”
“There’s truth!” drawled Englehorn, and leaned down to his cuspidor.
“Absolutely!” cried Driscoll, rubbing his handsome young jaw. “Why not even the Skipper and the mate know where this old ship’s going. . . .”
“There you are!” Weston spread his palms up. “Think of my reputation, Denham. I can’t send a young, pretty girl, or for that matter even a homely one if you’d have her, on a job like this without telling her what to expect.”
“And what is she to expect?” Denham demanded.
“To go off for no one knows how long, to some spot you won’t even hint at . . . the only woman on a ship that carries the toughest mugs my wise old Broadway eyes ever looked up and down.”
As the other three grinned the agent added hastily, “Of course I mean the crew.”
“Weston!” Denham’s fist crashed onto the table again. “I’m going out to do the biggest thing in my life and I’ve got to have that girl.”
“You never had a woman in any of your other pictures. Why do you want one for this?”
“Hell’s Bells! You don’t think I’m consulting my own preference, I hope.”
“Then, why . . .”
“Why? The Public’s why! My blessed Public must have a pretty girl’s face. Romance isn’t romance, adventure is as dull as dishwater . . . to my Public . . . unless, every so often, a face to sink a thousand ships, or is it saps? shows up. Imagine! I slave, I sweat blood to make a fine picture. And then the Public says: ‘We’d have liked it twice as much if there’d been a girl in it.’ And the exhibitors say: ‘If he’d given us a real love interest, the picture would have grossed twice as much.’