“We’ll be back, Squeaky Toy.”
Luck of the Dragon: Cold Comfort
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“I’ll be here, Clown Face,” Fang sneered in Chinese as Shin made an obscene gesture at him. The water taxi chugged away from the dock and the tiger went about his business.
He paused as one of the bodyguards emerged from the undergrowth. “Are you sure you two love each other?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” Fang replied, and the Shar Pei shook her head.
“Can’t prove it to me,” she muttered as she headed for her home.
The December breeze freshened, adding a bit of a tail wind to the water taxi as it made its way through the increasingly choppy lagoon to Eastern Island. The others caught Shin glancing back south from time to time, and the red panda blushed angrily as the sable and the Irish setter laughed at her.
Liberty stayed silent.
“Why so quiet, Liberty?” Tatiana asked.
“Just going over things in my head – did we forget anything?”
“Faith, it’s too late now, achudth,” Brigit remarked.
They all fell quiet, thinking about the upcoming trip. They had all seen how the previous year’s students had been affected by the ordeal. The sight of Li Han being half-carried onto the school grounds (and carried upstairs by one of the Tutors) was something that Shin associated with the trip, and was something she didn’t want to have happen to her.
Short of the gate Shin stopped, and waved the others close. “Look, no matter what happens – we are Red Dorm. We survive where others fail.”
One by one, her classmates nodded at the day’s dorm leader, and they headed for the school.
They stopped at the gate as Miss Blande confronted them. “Shin,” she said.
“Send them away,” she said crisply. “They’re not needed any longer.”
Shin knew better than to question the Tutor. She knew who the feline was talking about.
And she definitely knew better than to argue. She turned and made a gesture, then repeated it. There was a soft rustling in the bushes as the last of her guards departed.
“Good,” Miss Blande said. “And you are all early, too. Excellent initiative. Now, upstairs and start packing.”
It was a full two hours before the evening meal, and the quartet took their time packing, weighing and repacking their supplies. Weight was equally distributed and the equipment was apportioned to make sure that no one carried anything that couldn’t be substituted by something in the other three packs.
Dinner was roast chicken, a sure sign that something was in the offing. Only the first years (and only exceptionally dim second years, which Shin supposed accounted for about half the students) thought the change in diet was a treat. This time Liberty made no attempt to refuse it in the name of the exploited masses, but fell to with the same gusto that the others did.
As they ate they noted others watching them. Crusader Dorm were watching them like hawks, clearly hoping that their nemeses would not come back from the two-week trip. The first years weren’t looking at them, Shin realized, but at the dinner they were devouring.
“ 'Let the record show the condemned ate a hearty last meal',” Shin murmured, and Brigit chuckled. She grinned and started gnawing on another chicken leg.
Shin was on her bed, studying.
Liberty was examining her pack again.
Tatiana and Brigit were talking. The Irish girl was teaching the Russian a few choice words and phrases in Gaelic, and the sable was returning the favor pa-russki.
The door swung open and Miss Devinski snapped, “Inspection! Line up by your beds!”
The four young women replied and stayed standing as the Tutors meticulously went through their belongings and their equipment for the trip. Miss Wildford lifted something from Liberty’s pack. “What’s this, Liberty?”
“Fishing net, Ma’am.”
“That’s what I like about you, Liberty,” the feline said. “Your boundless optimism.” The New Havenite’s ears went flat as Wildford delved into Shin’s equipment and extracted a small, flat case. A slight pressure against the latch and the case popped open. “Folding binoculars, Shin?”
“We may need them to see if anyone’s approaching.”
“These don’t have much range.”
“They weigh less than standard binoculars.”
Wildford nodded and closed the case, then tossed it onto the bed before checking Brigit’s haversack. “What’s this?”
“Pandanus nut oil, Ma’am, made into a paste,” came the prompt reply.
“Th’ weather up there’s cold an’ wet, Ma’am. M’Great-uncle Terrence was in th’ Irish Guards in th’ Great War, an’ he told me that the best preventive fer trench foot was petrolatum, oil, tallow or plain grease,” Brigit explained.
An inspection of their food stores followed, and it was noted that several cans of the ‘crab log’ were present. “What, Liberty?” Miss Devinski asked. “No Maconochie?”
Liberty’s tail twitched. “No, Ma’am,” she said in a level tone in an effort to disguise her loathing.
The canine nodded tersely, and at her order the women presented the knives they were carrying for inspection. All four had obtained the blades from a shop that offered Great War surplus as hunting and expedition supplies. “Who bought these?” Miss Blande demanded.
“I did, Ma’am,” Shin replied.
The older feline twitched her ears. “Two trench knives, a kukri and a Ka-Bar,” she said. “You four planning on recreating the Western Front?”
“No, Ma’am. We discussed the usefulness of all four before I bought them.”
“Points will be deducted for knife wounds.”
“Understood, Ma’am,” Shin said quietly.
Miss Devinski scowled at the quartet. “Pack everything up,” she said. “You have the option of nine hours’ sleep, or do whatever you want.” She and the other Tutors walked out.
“I think I’ll go to bed – after I pack,” Shin said, and the others concurred.
"Watch your knee!"
"Get your elbow outta my back!"
So far, the Lockheed Lamprey was turning out to be somewhat less than first-class accommodations.
All twenty third-year students had been awakened at four that morning. Their equipment (a mixture of personal property, found items, and objects signed out of the school’s own stores) was inspected again before a hearty and filling breakfast was served. Then it was a brief hike to the seaplane terminal, another – very careful – inspection and all the students were loaded into the plane’s hold.
Shin was a bit worried that there might be a cavity search at some point, but didn’t share her concern with anyone else.
All four were dressed alike in slightly worn and faded dark blue RINS jumpsuits purchased from a used-clothing shop on Moon Island, their Songmark boots and coats. To prevent anyone trying to steal anything from the packs, they were either sitting on them or were using the satchels as backrests. Liberty was wearing the winter gear she had brought with her from New Haven three years earlier, a pea coat and a close-fitting knit cap. She hadn’t had to wear them since coming to Spontoon, and as a result the coat didn’t fit as well as it had, especially around the shoulders.
Brigit glared at a few of their fellow students, who repaid the look in kind. The Irish setter huddled a bit further against her pack as the temperature in the hold, although increased a bit by the presence of so many bodies, continued to drop. She glanced at her watch and grumbled a minor curse.
The droning of the Lamprey’s engines did its best to try and lull the young women to sleep. The close quarters, the steadily dropping temperature, and the enforced hours of inactivity were all conspiring against the notion of rest.
Another conspirator was anticipation, since none of the students would admit they were apprehensive about the upcoming test.
And all of them would collectively pull their own fur out rather than admit they were afraid.
The plane bucked as it hit turbulence, and the swaying motion caused one student to grab at a bucket. It seemed contagious, and for a time retching sounds were the only non-mechanical noises in the hold.
Any self-righteousness on the part of any of her fellows swiftly fled, and by the time the plane cleared the turbulence they were all feeling distinctly nauseous, at the very least.
Shin felt her ears pop, and the red panda yawned to equalize the pressure. The pain in her head joined with the queasiness in her stomach and the noise, scents and shaking in the plane’s hold to make her feel miserable. Her only consolation was that everyone else was feeling generally the same.
The change in cabin pressure also meant the plane was descending, and Miss Devinski emerged from the control cabin above them. “We’ll be landing at Ounalashka shortly,” she called out over the engine noise. “Get ready to disembark.” The canine went back up to join the crew of the plane (where it was undoubtedly warmer and there were windows) as the twenty students prepared for landing.
The Lamprey came down hard on the water, and the plane’s rocking and the sounds of water drumming on the hull signaled to everyone that they’d landed in a storm. The plane was drawn up to the ramp and Miss Devinski curtly ordered everyone out to help secure the aircraft before the weather worsened.
Shin’s ears laid back as a gust of wind nearly knocked her off her feet. Brigit passed her part of a lanyard and the red panda helped haul the plane out of the water and onto the seaplane ramp. The rain was just a few degrees away from sleet and driven at an oblique angle by the fierce gusts. Once the plane was anchored to the pilot’s and (more importantly) Miss Devinski’s satisfaction, Shin looked up.
The sky was the dark gray color of Fang’s favored shotgun, with very few breaks. “We flew through that to get here?” she said aloud.
“Looks like it,” Liberty said. She had her knit cap pulled down almost over her eyes. “Let’s get our gear and get out of this weather.”
“Right.” As the half-coyote shouldered past her, Shin noticed something.
Liberty . . . looked oddly happy.
Definitely not usual.
They were put up in the small community’s lumber warehouse, and the storm slowly subsided as each dorm made themselves as comfortable as possible in the drafty building.
“Look!” Minnie Fischer said suddenly. The Dutch marten and her classmates clustered around a crack in the clapboard wall in time to see the Lamprey being pushed back out into the harbor. Soon afterward, there came the sounds of engines starting, the crew wasting no time in leaving before the weather closed in yet again.
Liberty snorted. “May as well get settled down,” she said. “From the looks of the water out there, we won’t be leaving today.”
“You seem pretty comfortable,” Brigit observed.
The New Havenite grinned, an unsettling sight on her normally dour face. “I’ve seen weather like this before – reminds me of a nor’easter.”
“Maybe next winter we can send Crusader Dorm to New Haven, then,” Shin suggested.
“Or Krupmark,” Liberty said.
“Or Siberia,” Brigit said, and all four laughed.
The storm came back in the night and the temperature plummeted, leaving a coating of hard ice on the rigging of every boat in the harbor as well as on the safety lines that connected each building.
One of the other third years proposed a song, and was shouted down in favor of getting more sleep. Based on previous reports, they would get very little rest once the exercise truly started.
The next day dawned overcast and cold.
Shin huddled into her coat, bent under the weight of her pack as she and the others waited to board the fishing boat that had been contracted to take each dorm out to the respective islands. When she and the rest of Red Dorm bundled aboard, an ursine deckpaw pressed a small axe into her paws and directed her to chop ice from the gunwales and rigging.
The boat was old and considerably battered but sound, her cantonal pennant bearing a ship and the Cyrillic letters S.G. faded almost white and frayed into little more than a rag. Her crew moved like they were seasoned veterans.
Once they left the sheltered waters of the harbor and entered open sea the craft started pitching and rolling wildly. Waves went white over the bow, leaving spray that congealed into ice. The red panda, ice starting to collect on her face fur and tail, chopped away at the ice before it could overburden and capsize the vessel.
“Remind ye o’ anything?” Brigit yelled at Shin over the sound of waves smacking the hull.
“Th’ roller coaster at th’ amusement park on Casino.”
“Yeah, it does.” The red panda grabbed the Irish setter by the collar of her oilskin coat as Brigit slipped. Steadying her, she pointed at Liberty. “I think she thinks she’s in heaven.”
“Aye she looks happier’n ever I’ve seen her, so,” Brigit said, watching as the half-coyote shattered another clump of ice and kicked it into a scupper. “Do Trotskyites have a heaven?”
“I don’t want to find out.”
The boat arrived just offshore of a small island, and the first group of students disembarked.
Jumped over the side and swam ashore, as there was no dock and the boat’s captain, a taciturn musk ox, didn’t want to endanger the craft by coming in too close. As soon as the first group was safely ashore, the boat chugged away.
Shin and the others were the third group to get off the boat, and Miss Devinski waved them close. “There’s your home away from home,” she said. The younger women looked at the craggy piece of land as their Tutor added, “Get over the side and start swimming. We’ll be back in twelve days.”