Response to Billybuc's Photo Challenge/Prompt #5: We Came Ashore in Steilacoom
Just this morning, today, I finally understood why I haven’t been able to get to the end of a written tale based on this prompt, these pictures. I thought I was having writer’s block because the instant I saw them posted by billybuc, an idea for a beginning sentence landed, took strong root in my head and wouldn’t budge:
We came ashore in Steilacoom.
For weeks now I’ve been thinking those words were just the starting point for a fantastical story I would someday create. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get past the point in writing it where Skipper discovered and then told Orez he couldn’t be our guy on the ground. It was going to have to be me, the narrator of the story, who stayed behind instead.
Then a few hours ago, shortly after I woke to a very windy morning, a cloudy sky, darkness covering the spot where the sun should be…while I was crawling around under my desk trying to plug my computer back in because my cat knocked the wire out of the wall adapter…after that same cat decided to playfully sink her claw into my big toe…after I jumped in startled response, bumped my head hard on the underside of the desk, stood up rubbing and scratching my noggin…after all that, I was overwhelmed by a flood of memories, real memories about real events, about a faraway home, about the day I arrived here, the day we came ashore in Steilacoom. And why I am still in this place watching and checking on the clock habitually, day after day, writing by night and into the dawn on many days. It’s why I will be here for my own forever…
We Came Ashore in Steilacoom
We came ashore in Steilacoom. We actually did.
There had been talk of tube-chuting Orez into Liberty Bay on the way down, and that is why I spent a lot of time (we’re talking days, maybe weeks on end here) writing a draft of a story that looked like that. Turns out we had been planning branches and sequels along the way, considering options in case the Peace and Freedom clock was hard broke before we arrived. The clock in Poulsbo has lots of internal gearing we could have used for parts, if needed, so there was a contingency plan for that. Alas, that did not come to pass, so an Orez drop-off wasn’t necessary. In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t actually have to do that, even if it did turn out to be an all-day writing rabbit hole. I was blocked for hours trying to get past the explanation of how some of our folks can swim like a Mako shark and breathe underwater (Orez and Skipper are two that come to mind immediately) and some can’t. No point going down that road now, of course, but it’s true nonetheless, and perhaps now I might want to tell more about it someday.
We Came to Watch Over the Clock
I do remember clearly now that it had been quite a journey, one Skipper kept calling ‘arduous.’ No one else knew what that word meant, I don’t think, but still nodded when the skipper said it like ten times a day for the previous three days of undersea cruise. After splashdown and plunge—each considered critical phases on any Veadee mission—‘boring’ actually seemed most appropriate for the UC leg inbound to Steilacoom. And especially so when compared to hyper-driving through space with your hair on fire. In HD you’re traveling at speeds measured in degrees of ludicrous; UC is measured in mere knots and, in this case, in numbers of days, too, because of all the zigzag weaving necessitated by the craggy shoreline in the Puget Sound.
We came here to establish watch over the clock, the Peace and Freedom clock, which guaranteed—you guessed it!—peace and freedom (and also, therefore, stability) on the 17 inhabited planets in our solar system. The clock had hiccoughed in the not-too-distant past, stopped and started, reset itself and seemed to be working fine for the time being, but the incident struck fear in multi-billions of hearts across the galaxy, not just our own little solar system. Something had to be done, and the crew of the Veadee had been selected to do it.
Every one of us crewdogs had trained to work on the clock, if needed, though Orez was the volunteer we were going to leave behind on permanent watch. He was the logical choice, of course, having been orphaned more than a decade ago, but it did not make it any easier for us to leave behind a lifelong friend. As days ticked down closer and closer to drop-off, morale sank correspondingly. We were all pros, mind you, but leaving our shipmate and friend Orez alone, so far away from home and seemingly forever…well, it cast a somber atmosphere over every crewdog gathering.
The Evening Before Drop Off
On the eve before drop-off, as we autocruised slowly through the Sound past Poulsbo, Skipper called such a gathering to review the standards. This was somewhat puzzling, caused a few grumblings amongst the crewdogs because EVERYONE already knew the standards. They were not only plastered all over the walls and halls of the Veadee, but each one of us had to memorize and verbalize them to the skipper (while standing at rigid attention, no less, and quite often with her looking right into your earhole, standing so close you could feel the warm of her breath on your face and in your ear canal) before our first away trip with the crew. As a whole, the standards were our compass, our code, the laws that bound us together as a crew. We lived and breathed many of them on a daily basis; on any given day, though, for any given mission, some were more or less applicable than others.
As we all settled into our assigned briefing room chairs, Skipper walked around the space handing out paper copies that spelled out explicitly what she deemed most important this time around. Each of us, in turn, began reading immediately when she handed us our slip of paper.
Operating Standards, Mission STWAVD202005
- No physical contact of any kind with the locals.
- No consumption, injection or bodily absorption in any manner of any type of mind-altering, mood-altering chemical substances (liquid, gas, solid, animal, vegetable, mineral, anything). You all know what this means; don’t act like you don’t.
- Turn it on, but do not use your ansible to communicate with each other or the Veadee; leave all channels open for high priority incoming text and voice from Veadee or from home.
- Do not travel outside the 50 kilometer ping range of Veadee.
- Finally, and as always: do not, under any circumstances, answer truthfully the question, “Where are you from?”
These, and the rest of our standards, are not arduous, people (there was that word again), but they are binding and you will abide, without exception. Remember, too, RTS is two hours before sundown, douse is immediately following confirmation of Orez’s insertion.
Oh, and one more thing, people: have fun, act like you’ve been here before, and be safe.
Crewdog Mission Briefing
Skipper had always said that just before every mission: “Have fun, act like you’ve been here before, and be safe.” She really was an all-business sort, but she had a huge heart and an unbridled love for her crew, and we all knew that, could sense it in her being, loved her deeply in return. She also was always good about letting us get off the ship and have some fun, too. She knew—especially after a long, arduous mission—we all needed now and then to stretch our minds and legs a bit. And there weren’t too many of us, so our presence rarely raised eyebrows, and it really wasn’t a huge ask or risk. Unless we were on Cartus, of course, where none of us were the right height, all of us had too few limbs and eyes…
Come to think of it, actually, I guess there were a few other places around the galaxy where we didn’t fit in so well, too; Earth just wasn’t one of them. The searsks among us, like Skipper and Orez, for example, could blend in easily as long as they wore a shirt and collar to cover their backs and necks. The rest of us look just like you and me, really, products of an ever-evolving melting pot society. Anyway, as it turned out for this trip, whatever fears I might have had about Skipper maybe giving us too much leisure time ashore turned out to be unfounded. The late RTS time really had nothing to do with my life changing forever.
Back to the briefing: it was a short one, among the shortest I ever remember. Skipper did not field questions, she mostly just repeated what was written on the handouts.
“These standards are not arduous, people,” she started, then fixed her eyes on all 15 of us, one at a time, overwhelming each with her seriousness, planting her meaning deep into our very souls so it would take root, grow, be a presence one could not ignore. “But they are binding. And you WILL abide. The future of our home, our people, our way of life depends on it.” She spoke softly, deliberately, as if it were not just a message to us, but also somehow a message to herself. She looked slowly—and now I am certain it was sadly, too—around the room one more time, said nothing else, turned and walked out of the briefing room. The sound of boot heels clicking on metal grates faded as she made her way down the hall.
Drop Off Day
Next morning, we made it to Steilacoom arduously, whatever that really meant, and activated the Veadee’s light-steer before sunup, hiding her neatly in plain sight near water’s edge by the very cool railroad bridge at Chambers Bay. After individual workstation button up, the rest of the crewdogs and Skipper disembarked hastily through the tube while I got busy programming Veadee’s navigator for reverse UC routing out of the Sound and back to ascension point.
Return to Ship (RTS)
I was just wrapping up and saving the route plan when the skipper walked in and plopped down in the swiveling althelm chair next to me. She sighed an exaggerated sigh, began pivoting the chair back and forth, stop to stop, took another deep breath and exhaled through closed lips, making a motorboat sound. She was clearly agitated. I powered down the navigator, pushed the screen and keyboard back into the console, turned and faced her. Her face was wet with tears.
“I’m ok, Casey. Really, I am. I’ll be fine.”
“Is there something I can do, Skipper? What is it? How can I help? Want me to get Derbni back here and have him whip us up some lunch or something?”
“No, no, that’s fine, Ensign. Just relax. Thank you, but really I’m good. I was out walking, actually, and stopped for brunch a couple hours ago at that little bistro in town. It was quite good.”
I knew now for certain that something was terribly wrong. It was well before noon and the skipper never ate in the morning. Indeed, most days she’d forget to eat at all if Derbni didn’t bring her something and force her to eat it, or if one of us crewdogs didn’t drag her off to chow. “What is it, Skipper? What’s wrong?”
“Son, we have to talk,” she said in a somber voice, staring at me through tear-filled eyes with that same look she’d given the entire crew the evening before. It felt more intense now, lingering on me alone as it did in absence of the rest of the crew. “Things have changed quite a bit in the last few hours.”
It was then I looked down and noticed the flashing ansible in her hand, felt at the same time my own vibrating the code for ‘RTS, RTS, RTS’ in my pocket.
I tell everyone my name is Casey. I let a small room in an old green house of magnificent Victorian-era architecture that sits on the corner of Wilkes and Commercial in Steilacoom, Washington. I don’t travel much, almost never beyond city limits or the confines of Pierce County unless there is urgent need for parts, lubrication, or other similar supplies.
I have lived in this place for nearly ten years now, and know almost everyone in town by name, though I have no real close friends here. I never learned to cook well, though I do attempt it occasionally, having gotten a few whirlwind lessons from my friend Derbni via ansible in the hours immediately following my discovery that I’d be a permanent resident in Steilacoom, Washington. I am well fed and healthy, though, as I dine almost daily at the Bair Bistro. I like it there because they have good food, and also because it reminds me of my mom. She ate there on the last day I saw her, before she and the rest of the crew of the Veadee autocruised out of Puget Sound toward their ascension point using the route plan I’d put into Veadee’s navigator.
I am mostly happy here, mostly fulfilled with assigned duties, though on occasion I do miss the familiarity of home and a night sky that has 17 visible planets and moons that can number in double digits, too, depending on season. My family—the skipper—and all my closest friends live there, far, far away in a star system you can only vaguely see with the naked eye on very clear nights and at certain times of year here in the Pacific Northwest…
Though it’s been quite a long time since I last saw them gathered in the briefing room just after that final RTS call from Skipper, I don’t ache for them like perhaps I thought I would in the beginning. I have a very good life of my own, a strong purpose for being. You see, on that day of our final briefing, the same day my life changed forever, the day I found out my lifelong friend Orez was not an orphan, indeed had parents who were still alive—parents he and everyone else thought were long dead in a tragic accident in space (turns out Orez’s dad pushed a wrong button, made a kind of “oops’ turn in hyperdrive, from which it took about 12 years to recover)—on that same day, during a farewell ansible call from my mom, the skipper of the Veadee—I found out I was really living my own destiny.
“Check in your bag,” Skipper said through the crackling ansible. “I left something for you.”
I opened the backpack and saw there on top of my other belongings a medallion with the initials “KC” on one side and the name Casey on the other. My birthtag. And underneath it a note in my mother’s handwriting…
The Keeper of the Clock
My real name is KC. I am the Keeper of the Clock. It always was and forever shall remain my destiny to do my duty to keep the galaxy peaceful and free and stable. I will do that until the day I die, here in Steilacoom, Washington, where I came ashore all those years ago.
© 2020 greg cain