Hello and welcome to (a far more on time) Story A Week! This week is the third part to the ongoing Coleopteran short story called Birth. It’s fantasy, coming in at 1596 words.
This week you get a little more background on the docks and a wider look at the denizens of the city. Action will be coming soon, I promise
Story 31 – Birth – Part 3
The dock cranes smoked discharge, smearing the sky as they loaded or unloaded the ships. Above them wove the spider runs, carrying anything smaller than a carriage to and from the city. Below the charcoal sky the docks were heaving with workers. Sosan danced around them as they parted for the man he was trying to keep up with.
“So how much do you know then lad?” The man the foreman called the Controller walked along the dock slowly. Sosan knew he was a nobody in the wider machinations of the dock, but he was at least three levels above a dockie. That made him very important as far as Sosan’s future was concerned.
“I know the city couldn’t survive without the docks,” Sosan replied. He was told this in school, it was one of the reasons he wanted to be a dockie. That and the job for life. Even if that life was dark, cold and usually short. It was better than a lot of lives in Coleopteran. He realised the Controller had stopped.
“You sounded like you believed that.” He started at Sosan with hard old eyes. A big man, powerful once, the muscle has shrunk now but the skin hadn’t. It hung loosely from him in folds.
“I do, sir.”
“Bugger,” the Controller muttered, “nothing worse than a believer.” He rubbed his chin as though he had a beard, fingers toying with hair no longer present. He started walking along the docks front once more with long slow steps that covered distance surprisingly quickly.
“Who made you?”
“Does good work that one. How the hell did you afford that?”
“My Aunt died, Sir.”
“What you said means you know nothing about the docks. Not really. You have no idea what’s down there, the junk, the buildings, the creatures. Some strange and lethal shit swims in from the Trench,” the Controller said, then sneezed so loud the people around them turned to look – quite the achievement with the general noise level in working dockyard. He stopped and patted his pockets until he found a hankie and blew his nose. Sosan waited until he finished before speaking.
“That’s the truth. The docks bring in more goods than comes from the wilds, more food too I bet. Though the book I had was old and said it didn’t. More importantly it’s how the city gets out the pulped beetles. The docks are…” He tried to remember a turn of phrase he read in a newspaper recently, it came to him in a joyous flash, “the engine of commerce that powers the city.” Sosan was only a little shorter than the Controller, yet he felt he was getting inspected by those deep set eyes in a way he never had before.
“You read then?” The Controller murmured, Sosan felt for the first time the man had noticed him.
“Well enough for the papers.”
“Good enough, report to foreman Wilkes in three days. He’ll expect you at five prompt.” The large man turned and started walking away. Sosan managed to gather himself after a few seconds and called out after him.
“What! I mean, thank you, sir.” In response the old man waved his hand dismissively, within a minute he was talking to someone else. The docks never stopped. Sosan tried to stop grinning, failed, and started the walk back home. He couldn’t resist one last look at the water, darker than the smoke the cranes spewed, nearly opaque as he stared at it through his goggles. It moved sluggishly at its most polluted, shimmering with beetle oil and Jetha knows what else. Sosan couldn’t wait to be in it, swimming free.
Sosan surfaced, tiredness made him slow but he reached the dock ramps easily. The foreman Wilkes nodded to him, asked a few questions about his shift. Sosan was shadowing another dockie, a woman called Elena. She was fast, and contemptuous of Sosan. He wasn’t sure if it was genuine or affected, either way it didn’t matter. He’d get though his shadow time and be allowed to swim alone soon enough.
As Sosan talked foreman Wilkes made notes, how long he was down, what he did and if he saw anything dangerous or interesting that the next shift should know about. Then he asked what Elena had done, what had he noticed, how could it have been done better, safer.
Eventually satisfied, the foreman waved him on as another dockie splashed up and onto the ramp, Elena. As the questions and note taking started all over again, Sosan climbed the ramp away from the dark water. A group of men stood at the top, unnaturally quiet as a something clicked loudly. Curious, Sosan waddled over to the group.
A semicircle of men, fishermen as Sosan recognised a few of them, stood around a large spider, the size of one of the new auto-carriages. Around its neck, on a broad leather strap, hung a typewriter. With its two short front feeder arms it was typing a message that rolled out of the typewriter a line at a time. The font was large enough to read from a distance as humans never wanted to get close to the spiders.
Sosan wasn’t surprised by this, the spiders had effectively won the war by slaughtering humans by the hundreds in hand to hand fighting. They’d mysteriously pulled back and taken over an city quarter. Only after that had a treaty been forged by the city military. He’d never seen one of them up close before as the couple of times he’d seen one a street level he’d avoided even entering the same street.
For some reason, changed as he was, he felt emboldened now and joined the semi-circle. The fishermen made room as a working dockie had some cachet. The paper rolled up and clear of the typewriter when the spider had finished typing. The first lines were all greetings and formal exchanges. Sosan remembered that the spiders were big on rituals and formalities, the last line was a question.
Have you seen or felt something untoward in the water?
The fishermen muttered, a small argument broke out until one of them spoke loudly. An argument broke out over the meaning of a word and arguing was the second best thing a fisherman could do. The first was drinking.
“Unto-ward?” He enunciated the unfamiliar word phonetically. The spider trotted in place briefly, a sign of confusion.
“Something that shouldn’t be there – it means have you seen something strange,” Sosan explained. He may not be fond of reading but most of the city was bordering on illiterate. The fishermen talked for a while, an argument breaking out over what was strange and what wasn’t.
It was decided in the end that nothing strange had been seen in the docks for a few weeks now. Sosan agreed with this, he’d seen large shapes move in the murk, eels as long as a street dart away into the distance, tentacle things living in the mud and detritus at the bottom of the docks shooting out speared arms at anything that came close. Nothing strange. The dockies dealt with those creatures on a daily basis.
While the debate raged the Spider stood still. Or looked as though it did. Sosan watched it closely, avoiding the debate after saying he’d seen nothing. The Spider jerked spasmodically into a minutely different stance periodically. Sosan thought that if you weren’t looking as it did it you would never notice. It was un-nerving, underlining just how different these new arrivals in Coleopteran were.
When the argument would itself down to a standstill the Spider bobbed and retreated. It walked with high careful steps away from the dock toward archway fourteen by the administration buildings. Sosan followed behind at a distance. When it reached the archway it waited. Within a minute a man joined the Spider.
The Spider trotted, then bobbed. The man spoke to it but Sosan was still too far away to hear. The Spider bobbed again as Sosan drew close. The man paused, waved his right arm in front of the Spider and spoke again.
“Then it’s not here yet, though the stillness is unusual. What do you think?” The spider tapped a couple of its legs, then stood still again. The man repeated the arm gesture.
“I disagree. We wait and watch, anything else doesn’t make sense. It’s not like the Minister is going to provide anything heavy for this.” The Spider bobbed, stepped backwards and walked away through the arch and onto the streets beyond. Sosan realised suddenly the man had been talking to the spider without the need of the typewriter.
Then he noticed the man was staring back at him. He blushed and looked away. When he looked back the man was walking onto the street beyond the arch. He only knew of one person that could understand the Spiders without the need for a typewriter, the traitorous general’s son, the general that signed the peace treaty; General Moore’s son, Alexander.
Sosan’s stomach knotted, what was it he was called, Sosan tried to remember, the bird of death or something close to that. Whatever he got involved in was dangerous and huge. High level stuff, and he spoke openly about the Minister. Something was coming to the docks, something big. For the first time Sosan wondered if he’d made the right choice in becoming a dockie.