Methven - Day Two - Part One
I tossed and turned most of last night. Læ made us leave our wristwatches back in California, so I can't be sure when I finally drifted off, but I know I awoke near dawn bathed in sweat and with my heart racing like a top fuel eliminator.
I don't remember why.
Predictably, Bruno was already up and had a pot of coffee ready. He went rummaging around in his "suitcase" and came up with the makings for a traditional English breakfast, complete with crumpets, fried bread and marmalade. Once the smells of bacon and scrambled eggs started wafting over the campsite, it wasn't long until the entire Berkeley crew was assembled around the fire.
About the time breakfast was served, Carleton and Læ emerged from their tent. Carleton looked well-rested.
Læ looked like hell.
What should have been the whites of her eyes were still ruby red with burst capillaries. Beneath the golden brown of her tan, her skin had a sickly, greenish hue and I couldn't help but notice that she moved slowly and stiffly and that, as she emerged from the relative darkness of their tent, she swayed toward Carleton and held onto his elbow, as if needing support.
Even so, by the time they reached the fireside, she had reacquired much of her regal bearing and her voice was firm and vibrant when she greeted us.
"Good morning, gentlemen."
We chorused a "Good morning" in response.
"I trust you all slept well?"
The chorus was a little more ragged. Apparently I wasn't the only one to have put in a restless night.
"We shall not be breaking camp before tomorrow, I think, but our schedule for the day will be a full one, nonetheless."
"A reasonable enough question, Mr. Wilson. We shall spend the early part of the day equipping ourselves for the next stage of our journey. The remainder we shall spend in training."
"Combat, Mr. Wilde."
"Not likely. I'm strictly a non-combatant, remember?"
She gave me a tight smile.
"Would that that were possible, Mr. Wilde."
"Excuse me, but, exactly which part of 'no' did you misunderstand?"
She lidded her eyes and regarded me silently for a long moment.
"Mr. Wilde, I understand your desire to draw a distinction between you and those of your compatriots who were recruited specifically for their military background. Your aspirations notwithstanding, however, there will be no noncombatants among us."
When I started to object, she held up her hand to forestall me.
"Please, Mr. Wilde, hear me out. The chances that we will encounter bandits or rats at lower altitudes are excellent. The former are unlikely to and the latter incapable of respecting your desire to remain above the fray. Equally cogently, at some time during our expedition, we inevitably will engage one or more of our actual opponents. I can guarantee that none of them will exempt you from attack. If you refuse to train for such encounters--still worse, if you refuse to participate in them as an active combatant--the risk to this entire party--and to you, personally--will thereby be greatly increased. While this may seem counter-intuitive to you, I assure you that it is an inarguable fact."
She looked around at the nodding heads of my companions.
"I cannot force you to fight, Mr. Wilde. But you will endanger yourself, your fellows and our mission, if you choose not to. You appear to be an intelligent man. I trust you will make an intelligent decision."
I opened my mouth to argue with her. Then I closed it. I didn't like it, but I couldn't find any holes in her logic. Weeks ago and a world away, Bill and Blandy had tried to make the same point. I'd refused to listen then, but willful deafness wasn't an option now. I couldn't turn back and I sure as hell couldn't stay behind. When Læ and company moved on, all my creature comforts were leaving with them.
"I'm getting tired of losing these arguments, you know."
"I imagine so. But you can easily win the next one, Mr. Wilde."
"Oh? And how would I do that?"
"By being right, Mr. Wilde."
Everyone laughed. Eventually, ruefully, so did I.
After the chuckling subsided, Tong picked up the conversational ball.
"So whut kinda shit we be trainin' on?"
"Archery, fencing and unarmed combat, Mr. Lowe."
"I'm glad you approve, Mr. Carstairs."
"Archery is, like, totally awesome! I dig bow-hunting in a major way, you know?"
"You are an experienced archer, then?"
"Would you care to instruct your companions?"
Bruno was already digging into his "suitcase" again. He emerged a minute later bearing a double armload of assorted bows.
Blandy cast a swift, appraising eye over the collection.
"Dude, like, no compounds?"
"Methven has yet to independently develop that technology, Mr. Carstairs."
"Whassup wid dat? Like some Prime Directive shit?"
"Tong refers to the Star Trek television series, in which members of the Federation are forbidden from interfering with the course of development of primitive worlds."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilson. Indeed, Mr. Lowe, it is very like the Prime Directive."
. . .
I guess our employers' version of the Prime Directive doesn't extend to their choice of materials. Although those bows all appeared to be made of wood and their strings of gut, they turned out to be constructed of some lightweight fiber composite material and strung with an unbreakable plastic.
Bruno set up targets and we spent most of the morning practicing our archery. Pith turned out to be a natural. By mid-morning, he was hitting his targets every time. By contrast, Tong and Bill were still sending arrows into the hillside about half the time.
Carleton and Læ practiced right alongside us. Both seem to be pretty good shots, but neither is in Blandy's class.
Somehow, I found that reassuring. They aren't perfect, after all.
As for me, after an hour's instruction, I was so patently hopeless as an archer that Bruno was sent back to the "suitcase" to get me a crossbow.
It's actually a pretty nice piece of engineering. It's as light in weight as the others' bows and, instead of requiring a lot of upper body strength, it has a lever on the side that allows me to use my weight to cock it. It throws a bolt a pretty good distance, too. By comparison with the straight bows, it has a low rate of fire, but it's a heckuvva lot more accurate.
At least, it is for me.
Eventually I noticed that Bruno wasn't taking part in our archery exercise. That seemed unfair until I thought about it for a while. Then it clicked.
He's a cyborg. He doesn't need to practice.
. . .
After a break for lunch, (another one of Bruno's offhand masterpieces,) Carleton sent Bruno back into his magic suitcase for a selection of swords.
"Cool, dude! The epeé is like the total bomb!"
"Do I take that you also fence, Mr. Carstairs?"
"Læ, babe, I am, like, the perfect master of all sports!"
I saw Læ and Carleton exchange what seemed like amused glances at Blandy's brash brag.
"You might want to think about a saber, instead."
"No way, dude. The 'peé is, like, so radical! The saber is, like, for old, slow cavalry guys, you know?"
Carleton arched one eyebrow while reflectively stroking his fearsome facial scar.
"Okay-y-y..Bruno? Bring Mr. Carstairs an assortment of epeés, please."
Bruno did so.
"See anything you like, Blandy? They do call you 'Blandy', don't they?"
"Sure do. That's, like, a totally awesome Wop grip, dude!"
"So you like the Italian?"
Carleton gestured to the sword in question, a slim blade with a crossbar above a hilt that seemed to incorporate a set of brass knuckles. Bruno picked it up and displayed it against his arm, like a men's clothier showing a rep tie.
"Take it. Get a feel for it."
Blandy picked up the epeé. He began gently waving the blade around, moving only his wrist. Gradually, his movements grew bigger. In less than a minute, he was making broad, whistling cuts and lunges in all directions, while uttering little dramatic grunts and coughs at each pounce.
"Yah, dude! This 'peé is, like, the ultimate super-bad blade of all time! The balance kicks major butt!"
"Glad you like it. En Garde!"
I'd been so busy watching Blandy play Errol Flynn that I hadn't noticed Carleton arming himself. Now he stood, right foot forward, knees bent, right hand just above chin level, with a gleaming, basket-hilted sword pointed straight at Blandy's heart.
"Wha..? Hey! That's like, a saber, dude! No fair!"
"Put up your blade, or I'll cut you down where you stand."
There was no pity in Carleton's voice, no mercy in his tone. If he wasn't in deadly earnest, he deserved an Oscar nomination.
"Dude, you, like, don't even have a button on that point!"
By way of reply, Carleton sprang forward, forcing Blandy to jump back and awkwardly parry his lunge with the length of his sword closest to that fancy hilt. Carleton kept coming, swinging his arm up and smashing Blandy in the jaw with the chased-silver knuckleguard of his saber, then kneeing him in the balls.
Blandy lay curled in the dirt, blood flowing from his split-open cheek, holding his groin and moaning in agony, his fancy Italian-hilted epeé forgotten in the dust beside him.
Carleton stuck the point of his saber up Blandy's nose.
"Lesson number one," he said. "This is not a game."
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)