Who Mourns for Giordano?
"Keep us tight already!"
"I am, I am!"
Weeks of being cooped up in the little submarine had taken its toll on the partisans. The press of danger that had bound them together gave way to the bon ami their successful escape had produced. However, the bumpy trip up the Mississippi had worn that good feeling thin. On top of that, they had spent a tense three days waiting for a suitable escort at the mouth of the Missouri. Crossing the busy confluence of rivers was very hazardous, so they needed to trail something headed north making the westward turn through St. Louis, relying on the River Authority to direct their "guide" in the transit across southbound traffic with them safely tucked in his slipstream. The wakes of their unwary benefactors proved to be quite a boon, reducing their fuel consumption noticeably, but that savings was burned up waiting. Because the Missouri had not been recently dredged it wasn't deep enough to conceal their displacement, and the women were concerned that they'd be spotted if they went through St. Louis in daylight hours.
So for three days they lurked for a midnight, westbound barge, and by the time a likely prospect steamed by all four were completely frazzled. To compound matters further, the barge they chose had its destination only a few miles up from the confluence, at Bridgeton. They were forced to sit on the bottom all the next day at the stern of the barge—the only safe place given the volume of commerce on the river—until a few hours after dusk when found another tow to shadow. Leviathan had been trailing the same empty grain barge up the Missouri ever since.
Now they were at the ancient locks at Lake Ohae. Despite the enormous advances in technology since the locks had been built in the late twenty first century, river traffic persisted, as it had for thousands of years. Modern tugs were nuclear powered, their flat-bottomed burdens lighter and more hydrodynamic, but they still carried the same cereal grains first cultivated in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago. In a few commercial waterways locks had been replaced with enormous portage systems, and across the isthmus of East Suez and on the Trans-Florida Canal they had been eliminated by carving channels down to sea level, with differences in ocean height and salinity compensated for by gargantuan pumps and filtration systems. But on the Missouri locks were still practical, and their enduring design allowed for much larger barges than the smaller one the partisans' sub was shadowing.
That didn't make it easy or free of hazard; on the contrary, Patty had to monitor their position relative to the barge to within centimeters. With so much mass just off their bow, and the giant gates at their stern, the slightest mistake would crush the little submarine. In spite of the modifications the men had made to it, Leviathan was still not close to military grade, and her pilot did not trust the adaptive proximity control program when their quarry had no momentum to ensure its direction. Besides, the tug had moved to the front for the passage through the locks, leaving no water-jet exhaust to cover their own telltale bubbles. Patty, in a Herculean effort, held her station by shifting ballast around, including the ship's passengers. The danger and the jockeying, the close air and the dwindling supplies, and the relentless close quarters turned the best of friends into snapping dogs.
"Don't talk to my wife like that!" Don hissed.
Jim started to defend his spouse but Patty said in a strangled scream, "Shut up! Shut up and move left about half a meter. Husband: go back three meters."
Everyone did as they were told. If they survived this passage they'd be in a big lake with more freedom of motion and action, and only a day or two from Standing Rock and the Lakota Nation. The unspoken consensus was that after the locks they could get ashore and each could let off some steam. If they survived.
The lockmaster had closed the gates behind the hidden submarine, leaving only a couple of meters between the massive slabs of composite layered with steel and Leviathan's vectoring hydrojets. Patty dared not use active location sensors lest they be detected; instead she relied on exterior cameras, barely useful in the murky water. She saw the gates only when they emerged from the soggy gloom, too late to do much about it. Luck was with them that day, however, and the sluice valves spilled a small fraction of Lake Ohae into the lock, filling the little sub with a deafening whoosh. Turbulence rocked the little boat, up and down, side to side, but fortunately not front and back. They surely would have been damaged or even breeched by an impact.
After about forty-five minutes the noise and vibration subsided.
"Thank goddess," whispered Cat. The four had been tensely shifting around to stabilize the sub, and with the cessation of the jerking about they could relax. With a thud the front gates unlatched and opened, and shortly they could hear the tug up front straining against inertia to drag the barge into the man-made lake. Patty waited until it set up a wake to mask their own jets, then she eased Leviathan forward, shadowing their escort until they were well into the lake. It was deep enough for them to deviate from the channel, and since night was falling Patty broke off the shadowing and steered the sub to a desolate beach, judged inaccessible by land due to the steep loess-covered bluffs lining the shore. They came to rest about fifty meters from the rough sand; anchor set, they all stripped and dived into cold dark water, swimming to shore, thankful to at last be out of the sub.
The physical shock of the temperature change, coupled with the exertion and the release of tension, sapped all strength and emotion out of them. Had the night been warm the partisans might have slept on that rough sand; instead they sat apart, shivering, silent, decompressing while watching the last rays of the day pierce the coming night. It took almost half an hour, but finally they started talking to each other. Cat spoke first.
"Sorry if I've been bitchy," she said, barely above a whisper.
"You have," said Patty quickly, then she added, "but so have I."
Don edged close to his wife. "What a trip! Tough on all of us, but we're almost there."
"That's true, actually. Then what do we do?" Cat asked, knowing the answer but wanting to keep the conversation going.
"Ditch the sub, hop a westbound autofreight."
"Sounds so easy."
"As easy as station-keeping behind a 50-ton barge in a lock," Patty said wryly.
"Couldn't be any worse, huh, honey? Jimmy?"
Cat looked at her mate. Jim had dozed off, despite being wet in the cold air and on coarse sand. He was a big man, and retained heat better than the rest. He snored softly; Cat laughed.
"Guess we're not a young as we used to be."
"Wanna bet? I'll race you back to the boat," Patty challenged. "Too chilly here for me anyway."
With that the women jumped up and plunged back into the dark lake with a splash. The commotion managed to wake Jim.
"My friend," Don said, "you just missed a picture for the ages. Our wives jiggling down the beach."
"If I had any energy I'd get excited," he replied groggily.
"They still look good, both of them."
"Hey, now, that's my woman," Jim said with mock indignation. He yawned. "Hell of a trip."
"That's what I said."
The men sat on the beach while the swim meet progressed; fifty meters was nothing for kids, but Patty and Cat were beyond the kid stage. Finally Cat reached the sub, maybe a minute ahead of her friend, and slipped down the hatch. Once inside she turned up the ventilation system, exchanging weeks-old stale atmosphere for fresh South Dakota air. Patty climbed onto the hull and turned to wave at Jim and Don; her silhouette was barely visible. She too climbed down into the ship.
"Gettin' cold," said Don.
Jim ignored the complaint. "Yeah, a hell of a trip. We've been damn lucky. Damn lucky." His tone indicated something other than relief.
"We made good plans, we're smart people."
"I know," Jim replied, "but there were so many times things could have gone wrong. If the Stoners had arrived ten minutes earlier, or if your decoy hadn't worked, they'd have had us. We'd all be in a storage box waiting for the Church biologists."
"Yeah, but we're not. We did good," said Don, shivering, trying to cheer up his best friend. But he would have none of it.
"Suppose that oil platform had been dry? We'd have been stuck out there, sitting ducks."
Don had to admit, "We are just about out of fuel again, used up all that we got in Tennessee. We've got enough to make it to reservation though."
"Then what? Do we know anybody there?"
"Probably not. Maybe a friend of a friend from the tribes on Hopi Reservation. Someone who knew Patty's dad." Don's teeth were beginning to chatter.
"Probably, maybe. I'm not blaming you, man. It's just..." Jim's voice trailed away.
"We should have emigrated when we had the chance. I've put Cat in too much jeopardy. Too much danger."
"She ch-chose to stay behind with as much determination as you, if I recall. Dude, I've got to get back to the sub." Don stood up and made for the water.
Jim followed. "You shouldn't swim alone."
Together they waded into the murk. It too was cold, colder than the air, cold enough to take their breath away. They swam with measured ferocity, trying to warm themselves up with the exertion, but they just got colder and colder. Jim was in slightly better condition when they arrived at the boat and helped drag his friend aboard. He banged on the hull and shortly Patty poked her head up, hair wrapped in a towel.
"Oh shit," she said, "You all right?"
Barefoot but wearing a robe, she climbed out onto the chilly deck to her husband, doffing her terrycloth and covering her shivering husband. She helped him down the hatch, and for a long moment Jim was alone, naked, freezing under a clear moonless sky.
"Shoulda left when we had the chance," he said to the night and no one else. "I can't lose Cat, I just can't."
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