Baxil (baxil) wrote,

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It is done! And so back to the shorter stuff ...

To: "CB Fox" <>
From: "claw n fang" <>
Date: Sun, 22 Oct 2006, 04:13:44 GMT -0800
Subject: Re: Well, THIS sure takes me back

Good to hear from you too, vixy. ;-) We should get together sometime. Want to jump up here next weekend? We could hang out in the UDist some and then catch a movie. _Holding Fire_ just started.

On Fri, 20 Oct 2006, wrote:
> How's Claw? Is he still overseas on that Atlantis project?

They're going to be out there for ... I don't know. Years, probably. :-( He comes home every time the boat hits port, but things are getting kind of dicey out there and they're spending a lot more time holed up at sea. I see the weariness in his eyes more and more every time he returns and I just don't know what to do.

Claw keeps trying to convince me to go along -- I always was the better mage, and he just doesn't think he's doing a good enough job. But it scares me to see where this is going. I read things like that big feature Vanity Parade just ran (copy attached -- Claw's even in the story; he's "Ben") and the secrecy and paranoia give me flashbacks.

This is a dream he needs to follow. I can't and won't stop him. But after all we've been through, I just want some peace and quiet. Is that so wrong?

- Fang

p.s. Re the job - oh my GODS is that cool. Magically assisted Web searches? Time for me to get a trial subscription. Hee hee ... maybe that'll even help us track down Kiasu for you. ;-)

Making a homeland is easier than finding one - but not by much.
By Jaime Madeira
Exclusive to Vanity Parade
November 2006

RISING HOPES: A 3-part series on the New Atlantis Project
* "Over the horizon" - The birth of an idea
** Sidebar: Resistance and support on the home front
* Dangerous waters - On location with the Discovery
** Sidebar: Steering by the stars - Celebrity backing a boost
* Can New Atlantis succeed? - The road ahead
** Sidebar: Founding a country is no easy task

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a world-exclusive look on board the ship of the mages attempting to raise New Atlantis. Due to the sensitivity of their work, the crew of the Discovery cooperated with this story on the conditions that they help choose the reporter who would board their vessel, and that all notes and photos not necessary for story sourcing be destroyed. Key events and conversations have been independently verified by Vanity Parade staff. Some names have been changed.

* * *

MV DISCOVERY, THE SOUTHEAST PACIFIC OCEAN -- It's a warm, clear morning when I stagger out of my bunk and discover the reason for all this secrecy.

There's a warship steaming by just a quarter-mile away.

The Discovery's captain -- a human woman who goes by the single name Tashi -- hands me a pair of binoculars. I focus them in on the Stars and Stripes fluttering above the warship's bridge. Sunlight from the horizon glints off of its gun mount.

"The last time the Navy saw us," Tashi tells me, "they fired a warning shot. We'd rather not give them a second chance."

Right now, that responsibility belongs to "Ben." He's the werewolf sitting cross-legged on the aft deck nearby, just outside the dining room, lost in meditation. Because of him, we are invisible and silent to the rest of the world.

The destroyer gradually recedes into the distance. When I later speak with U.S. Navy Pacific Command Adm. James Northrop, he says that was probably the USS Hopper, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently "out on a training mission."

We are several thousand miles from its home port in Hawaii.

* * *

The MV Discovery -- "MV" stands for Motorized Vessel, and is the modern-day equivalent of "SS" for Sailing Ship -- is a 170-foot research boat that the New Atlantis Project bought secondhand for about $700,000. It can carry 67 tons of fuel and run for over a month before returning to civilization. It has shrugged off deep-sea storms and weathered decades of use.

None of this is any consolation when thousands of feet of ocean lie beneath you and a heavily armed ship's wake is lapping at your hull.

The crew of the Discovery didn't sign up for a fight. Everyone is palpably nervous while the destroyer slides by. As it gradually sinks into the horizon, this is replaced with relief. The night shift returns to breakfast so they can get to bed.

Sixty-two people are on board. The Discovery has 45 bunks. But there's no doubling up -- remarkably, everyone on the ship has their own resting place.

Some sleep arrangements are creative. The chef, a wiry Indonesian with broken English but a quick wit, has a cushion stacked atop canned food in the pantry. Tashi sleeps behind the desk in her office. The captain's quarters house a bizarre pack of animal therianthropes: Wolves, a cheetah, two tigers and a unicorn, who all sprawl on the floor, using each other as pillows.

Even though NAP's dream is to create a theri homeland, the Discovery has an awful lot of humans on board: over half the crew. I had also expected when I arrived that I would be the only non-mage aboard, but at least a dozen others are "normals" -- as I occasionally hear them being called.

One of these is "Philip," who also happens to be the white tiger I saw in the captain's quarters. (Those who sleep there joke about being "in the zoo.") In his other form, he's a tanned, bearded man with a Master's degree in marine biology. He works 12-hour night shifts as the pilot and also helps gather and process the team's geological data.

"No, I haven't felt left out, not being a mage," Philip tells me over breakfast. "I've been in the thick of things all along. We're only now getting to where the mages can start working. It took us four years to decide to raise an island, a year to just buy the boat, another year to get seriously started, and the last 18 months have all been research."

One peek inside Tashi's office gives a sense of that. Three entire walls are papered over with Pacific Ocean maps. Tectonic motion, ley lines and nodes, territorial waters, volcanic activity, tsunami susceptibility, shipping lanes, fishery waters -- all heavily marked up, covered in Post-Its, and punctured with pushpins at over a hundred candidate locations.

Philip tells me that a bedroom downstairs, which I'm never allowed to visit, has more detailed data for the top five locations. Even now, they haven't settled on a single spot.

"That's actually out of necessity," Tashi explains to me later on. "If we focused all of our efforts on one location, it would be too easy to find us before we could finish our work."

That initially strikes me as paranoid. Then I remember the destroyer.

"Why is the Navy trying to stop you?" I ask Tashi.

She doesn't have to think about that one. "They're afraid that we're going to succeed."

* * *

The U.S. Navy isn't the only one worried that the New Atlantis Project might bear fruit. In a very real way, some of the people most afraid of success are the New Atlanteans themselves.

"We should be so lucky that our biggest problem is getting boarded or sunk," Tashi tells me one windy day as the two of us soak up some sunshine above the bridge. On the foredeck, eight crew members are playing a close-quarters game of Frisbee. "What keeps me up at night is the possibility our work could cause a tsunami. If we do this wrong, we could be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths."

A gust of wind punctuates her statement, sending a Frisbee toss overboard. The crew members hoot and groan. One of them traces a quick circle in the air, puts his hand through it, and yanks. The flying disc suddenly reverses direction and catapults back onto the deck.

Back inside, a team of Australian scientists is working on the little hundreds-of-thousands-of-deaths thing.

"I'm confident this can be done safely," says Dr. "Bruce Tiffen," a marine geophysicist on board the Discovery with his four human assistants and a roomful of computers. "Simply put, tsunamis are caused by abrupt seafloor deformation. We've been developing and modeling a gradual, directed island-raising that would spread out the water displacement over a sustained period. The tests their mages have been running fall in line with our data."

Tiffen is a consultant, one of the few people on board being paid. Unlike the theris and mages, he has no personal stake in what happens after the island breaks the surface. He talks about the project in a tone that swings between clinical detachment and scientific fascination.

"Nobody has ever done anything like this before," Tiffen says excitedly as we take a break from examining pretty false-color animations of spreading ocean swells. "Planning, executing and monitoring a sustained seafloor deformation like this has the potential to revolutionize our field. The data alone -- most seismologists would kill to get pre-event measurements of the quality we'll be able to retrieve."

Fortunately, no killing is necessary. Tiffen says that he and Tashi negotiated an agreement with a major Australian university to provide widespread scientific monitoring of the event once the real island-raising work starts. The results will be made public, though both NAP and university officials refuse to discuss any other details of the deal.

"They are getting some governmental support in return, and that's all I can say," Tiffen says.

Tiffen never once refers to the other crew members, or anyone besides his assistants, as "us." Drawn in by this, I ask him near the end of our voyage what he thinks of the New Atlantis Project.

Tiffen snaps straight into the soundbite: "They're clients, and I believe in all my clients' projects."

But after dinner, he finds me and adds: "You want to know what I really think? I believe they're the right people to do something this big. They've been careful and forward-thinking at every step, and they're trying to build a positive legacy beyond just the island they want to move to. If that's what New Atlantis is about, I stand behind it 100 percent."

* * *

Northrop's not a believer. In fact, when I ask the Navy's top Pacific commander the same question, he lapses into incredulous silence.

"They're a menace. They're madmen," he finally snaps at me. "They've been flaunting American law and international law since day one, and they want to destroy the Pacific as we know it."

Despite this, he steadfastly refuses to confirm whether the Navy's chasing the Discovery.

"Yes, we lawfully fired a warning shot at them when they refused a proper request to board," Northrop says. "Yes, we would be very interested in holding them accountable for their actions. But with the war in Iraq still on, we have a lot of other priorities."

I ask him what the USS Hopper was doing "training" far in the south Pacific.

"Details of individual ships' missions are classified for security reasons," Northrop snaps at me.

Some military analysts were more forthcoming.

"A destroyer wouldn't go that far from port for surveillance," says Tony Garnatto of Washington, D.C.-based WarWatch. "If they're just tracking the Discovery, the government would do so with submarines or satellites. Given the prior incident, any interdiction would be made with multiple ships. So the destroyer was likely there to send a visible message: We're still watching you."

Watching isn't all the Navy is allowed to do. Although the open ocean is often thought of as a lawless "high seas," any nation's military ships may confront vessels suspected of piracy or human trafficking, and international treaties give them wide latitude to interdict ships suspected of behavior affecting their national security. To Northrop, and to legal analysts with whom I spoke, the tsunami possibility is a clear national security issue.

So to be left alone in international waters, the Discovery must still hide from the Navy -- despite flying an Indonesian flag.

The NAP re-registered the ship there after the group's relations with the U.S. deteriorated, Tashi says. Discovery's chef -- an Indonesian businessman sympathetic to the project who wishes to remain anonymous -- handled the arrangements and legal liability.

The affiliation isn't without its benefits. A non-American flag provides the ship protection from the U.S. in many foreign ports, where jurisdiction issues are murkier and a confrontation would be more likely to provoke international outrage. In port, the Discovery can easily be targeted by local authorities no matter its affiliation, but so far nobody seems inclined to do so.

The change in flags is a microcosm of the entire Navy-Discovery standoff -- maneuvering more resembling a legal dance than a sea battle. Both sides are positioning themselves and waiting for their foe's first stumble.

"They're overstepping, throwing their weight around like this," Tashi tells me on the afternoon of the destroyer sighting. "This on top of the Iraq war? It's like they want to cement their reputation as a global bully."

"What will it take for countries giving these criminals shelter to realize what their true ambitions are?" Northrop asks me later, during our interview. "They're out to create their utopia no matter the cost to humanity. We need to expose their lies before it's too late."

Northrop is apparently fighting an uphill battle; despite the Bush administration's vicious denunciations of the NAP and aggressive political arm-twisting (see story in previous issue), the rest of the world largely hasn't labeled the project a threat. Most international observers -- including the 16-country alliance closest to the Discovery's target areas -- are playing the watch-and-wait game.

"We are still reviewing the information the NAP has given us regarding their seafloor tests, and the Forum has taken no official position on their work at this time," Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Toranu Vilanama tells me after my trip.

Some cracks in the wall of silence are beginning to show. The Washington, D.C.-based Oceanography Society has criticized the U.S. stance on the NAP, saying scientific inquiry is being stifled. In October, a multinational business group, the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, called on the New Atlantis Project to halt their work -- citing concerns about shipping lanes, fishing and potential tsunami damage to ports. And the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, Sebastian Morehalau, recently stirred up controversy by saying he would consider New Atlantis for Micronesian statehood if it was raised in the region. (He later retracted the statement after internal criticism and U.S. pressure.)

Regardless, in politics as well as in the Pacific, the situation remains a tense stalemate. And on the Discovery, such concerns seem a world away.

* * *

What's really on the crew members' minds are their day-to-day lives.

"Hey, there's something in the water," a woman named "Alice" yells from the foredeck one warm early morning as her fellow Frisbee players crowd the railing. Frisbee, Hacky Sack and swimming are popular physical outlets for a crew confined for weeks at a time to a space less than half the size of a football field.

Philip, near the end of his shift, calls back from the bridge. "Where?"

"Uhhh, way off to the left," Alice says.

"Port or starboard?" He sounds annoyed.

Alice confers with her crewmates. "Port's to the left, right?"

"I think so," says "Stan," a boyish, well-tanned figure in swim trunks and tennis shoes. "I can never keep them straight."

With the "normal" research wrapping up, the Discovery's crew is now largely mages with little nautical experience. For some of them, the trip I'm on is also their maiden voyage, and their still-sloppy vocabulary irritates the old hands.

Not that the old hands are drill sergeants about naval tradition. When the NAP bought its flagship, the Fiorenzo was a refugee from the Mediterranean, a victim of Italian government cutbacks. Despite an old sea superstition about not changing ships' names, NAP rechristened the vessel Discovery with the enthusiastic approval of its crew.

"Everything just fell together. It was like this ship wanted to be with us," Tashi told me in an interview prior to my trip. "I think she asked to be renamed. This is her mission."

Right now, that mission is taking a back seat to the excitement of, well, discovery.

"It looks kind of squarish," Alice shouts, and points. Philip follows her arm out to the object, squints, and nods.

"'Jeff,' anything out there?" Philip calls to one of the Frisbee players, who glances up from his spot at the railing, then closes his eyes.

"No," Jeff finally says. "Any word from the raven's nest?"

The term for a ship's elevated lookout platform is "crow's nest," but Philip lets the vocabulary sloppiness slide. "I'll check. You and 'Lloyd' prep a boat." The ship's two propellers shudder to a halt. "Where's Meira?"

Meira Seakin is belowdecks -- her shift hasn't quite started yet. A freckled young Midwestern woman with a perpetual smile, she is one of the NAP's firmest promoters and an original Discovery crew member. She insisted I use her real name for this story.

In what time we've had to talk, I've already discovered that her reason for joining the New Atlantis Project has little to do with the words "new" or "project."

Years ago, the Seakin clan gathered some fame for their colorful stories of the old Atlantis -- and their insistence that it's a real place, a very ancient land and sea empire centered in the Caribbean. Long before the New Atlantis dream, the Seakins embarked on a quest to restore the original one.

That short-lived project got little publicity before the clan gave up, saying their on-site research forced them to conclude Atlantis was vaporized by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs and created the Gulf of Mexico. The Seakins retreated to a communal house in the Florida Keys and probably would have vanished from public view if NAP hadn't spurred them back into action.

Meira bounds up the stairs as Jeff and Lloyd are carrying an inflatable dinghy and small outboard motor to the aft railing. She's a barefoot bundle of motion, wearing a bikini top and wrapped in an unfastened sarong she's holding together with one hand.

"Something to check out?" she asks, the sides of her neck flaring out slightly. A Frisbee player nods and points. In a single blur of motion, Meira steps up onto a low metal locker against the side of the boat, leaps to the top of the gunwale, and soars into midair with a now-familiar whoop, both arms snapping forward as she arcs down toward the sea.

Her sarong starts billowing and falling away before she even hits the water. There's a brief flash of skin, then spray, then scale, and in the time it takes me to blink the mermaid has looped back to the ocean's surface and gathered up the square of fabric in one outstretched arm. She slaps the water's surface with her tail, grins at the onlooking crewmen, then, long brown hair streaming behind her, gracefully jumps and dives in a broad curve toward the distant object.

"I never get tired of watching that," Stan says.

"Lucky bastard. I'm usually asleep," one of his Frisbee partners grumbles.

We wait and watch as Meira's distant form circles the mystery object. "Ray confirms all clear," a voice announces to nobody in particular over the intercom. Our mermaid vanishes underwater, and before we know it, has surfaced back at the boat.

"Looks like a crate," she says. "A few weeks worth of kelp."

Jeff and Lloyd exchange glances, shrug, and start lowering the dinghy to the water. On most boats, this would involve securing it to the davit, swinging it out over water, and winching it to sea level; with two impatient mages doing the work, though, it's a matter of simply levitating it over the side and then climbing over the gunwale and down a ladder to follow it. Soon, they've motored out to the crate.

While they pop the top open, Meira has rolled onto a platform of solidified water one of her crewmates has helpfully provided; wriggled back into her wet sarong; and stood up on human legs to climb that ladder back on board.

Jeff and Lloyd soon return, disappointed. "Just a bunch of rotten coconuts," Lloyd grumps. "Stink to high heaven."

"I bet some cargo ship lost 'em in a corner and tossed 'em overboard rather than have to account for the things going bad," Jeff suggests.

The crowd of onlookers sighs in disappointment and disperses toward breakfast. The dinghy is soon back on board, and the propellers rumble back to life.

"They seemed disappointed in the crate," I tell Philip later as he and I share breakfast. I've taken to eating morning meals with him -- he's one of the few New Atlanteans who doesn't seem to regard me as an outsider. "Have you guys ever found anything valuable before?"

"Nah," Philip says between forkfuls of scrambled egg. "The seawater ruins almost everything. Plastic trinkets survive, but they're usually useless."

I change tacks. "So was finding it valuable research data?"

He gives me a strange look. "Why would it be? We already have detailed maps of currents and shipping lanes."

"Well, it just seemed like a big deal, the way you stopped the ship."

Philip swallows a bite of egg and breaks into a grin. "In between planned stops, anything to break the monotony."

* * *

For the next few hours, crew members crowd the railing, scanning the ocean with eyes, binoculars, and -- I'm sure -- a few spells. The Pacific remains empty, an unbroken circle of water out to the flat horizon; the clusters of watchers gradually disperse and wander back inside. The encounter fades into memory and the distraction fades back into routine.

The Frisbee/Hacky Sack crowd changes daily as crew members shift from stale activity to fresh activity. I find a few of yesterday's disc tossers gathered around a Playstation 2 belowdecks, mashing buttons as four pixelated characters battle it out on their small TV. Others play cards in day-long stretches in the dining room -- bridge, poker, and elements are all popular -- interrupted only by their shipmates drifting in for meals. The crossword puzzle crowd seems to congregate in the bridge, keeping day-shift pilot "Laura" company.

Meanwhile, a constantly rotating cadre of crewmen scurry around maintaining order and cleanliness. A chore sheet is posted in front of a small storage nook that started life as the Fiorenzo's commissary; many of the shifts are scribbled out, corrected, and recorrected based on card-game wagers. Next to it is a hand-written sheet headlined "CHORE SILENT AUCTION -- For all you losers who blew one too many bets."

"Victor"s stunt is currently the chart-topper: "Eat an entire handful of wasabe." None other than Tashi has the top bid of six laundry shifts. A close contender, Lloyd's "Swim naked around the ship at noon" has been bid up to Alice's five bathroom cleanings.

Down the hall, behind a closed door, a few dedicated souls with rock 'n' roll dreams are rehearsing. They've been practicing an acoustic, folksy adaptation of Robot Dog's "Call of the Gears" all morning. Turned downtempo, the song is strangely hypnotic.

The lower-level common room has been sacrificed for a movie hall. Rows of chairs, cushions and beanbags face a vintage projection TV hooked up to a DVD player and the ship's satellite TV connection. A schedule is posted on the door, listing films, news broadcasts and the occasional special event. Dr. Tiffen takes over the room every other night at 8 p.m. for a lecture series on geography.

Crew members also seem to enjoy reading on their bunks, borrowing from the ship's eclectic and overflowing library. I quickly notice the books are loosely categorized by genre, but no such concession is made to language. A Chinese-language series with a brown, crimson-winged dragon on all its covers seems incongruously popular.

I catch Stan leafing through one halfway through our trip. "What's up with those books? What are they about?" I ask.

Stan looks up. "You haven't been exposed to 'Dragon's Westward Journey' yet?"

"Uh, no."

He grins. "They're horrible. The stories are like a bad drug trip and the editing makes you wince. But they're so wrong you can't put them down."

"The series is some weird adaptation of the Chinese folktale 'The Journey to the West' with characters ripping off theri celebrities," Lloyd pitches in from across the room. "They're a runaway hit in Beijing."

"This one's called 'Daniel Red-Wing and the Curtain Raising General,'" Stan continues. "There's something about a chariot in the Hall of Miraculous Mist, so a guy lives in the Flowing Sand River because of the Peach Banquet, and the general knows these 18 transformations ..." Stan trails off and shrugs. "We get together to read these aloud in the movie room every midnight. It's an experience."

"'We'? How many of you read Chinese?" I ask.

Stan smirks and holds up his book, showing off English words the pages don't actually contain. "Magic, baby, magic."

* * *

The next day, we're at our destination, and the real magic begins.

When I awake, the ship is rolling more than usual. I get dressed and go topside into a damp wind; the sky is grey with threatening clouds. The ship seems deserted. I climb up to the bridge and ask Philip where everyone is.

He's hunched over a bank of controls, absorbed in his electronics' readings. "Down in the movie hall or the computer room," he says.

Except for the werewolf on the foredeck.

I realize belatedly that Ben wasn't meditating in his usual spot in front of the dining room. He's such a fixture there during the day that I've begun to take him for granted.

Now, with the rest of the crew hidden away, Ben is finally in motion. He intently sweeps through a sequence of what look like martial arts moves, dancing around the empty deck in wide arcs and smooth lines. I find my eyes fixed to him. It looks like he's piecing together the sort of ritual that could shatter the heavens.

As if on cue, thunder rumbles in the distance.

Turning to leave the bridge, I almost collide with a short, solidly built Native American. I stumble off to one side. He sweeps by me as if I'm not even there before he thinks to turn around and apologize. It takes me a moment to place the face, and by the time I do, he's already deep in quiet conversation with Philip.

The other crew members call the black-haired man Ray -- though I've been told that's not his real name. I've only ever seen him at meals before. I don't even know where -- or if -- he sleeps. Today's activity seems to be bringing phantoms out of the woodwork.

Curious about the others, I wander down to the movie room. There's a sign on the door, announcing in big letters: "DO NOT BARGE IN. DO NOT KNOCK. Ritual in progress. Enter quietly, stand just inside the door, and someone will let you in to the sacred space." I do as directed, and glance around the hall while I wait for admittance.

All of the furniture has been pushed to the corners. A standing outer ring and a kneeling inner ring of mages are quietly facing inward, where Tashi is directing them from the center. There are a few people sitting in chairs around the outside -- one mage in each corner, their backs to the crowd; and Dr. Tiffen to one side, holding a pocket watch and a pen and madly scribbling notes on a clipboard in his lap. The corner mage nearest the door, Jeff, notices my arrival and motions for me to wait. He gets up and walks my way.

Tashi is rattling off instructions in a singsong chant -- outer ring ready to light the spark, inner ring pull up, outer ring mark. Other than her gestures and Jeff's quiet movement toward the door to "let me in," the room is silent and still. With dozens of people circled on the faded carpet in the dim light, it doesn't seem like an island-raising as much as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Jeff faces me, traces a doorway in the air with a knife from his belt and draws a vertical line down the center of it. A ghostly blackness starts seeping into the air he cuts. He stands, thrusts his fingers into that center line, and spreads his arms; the doorway melts into a solid darkness, out of phase with the rest of the room, overlaying rather than blocking the figures within.

Jeff touches a finger to his lips, steps back, and motions me in. I step into another world.

An electric tingle surges through my body as I pass into the darkness. My head reels with vertigo. Suddenly, I'm standing on empty space, surrounded by night. The air around me is charged with energy so barely restrained that even I feel as if it can be shaped with a thought. The corner keepers are barely visible in the gloom, but the two circles of mages glow with some inner illumination, and far below all of us an alien landscape is painted in a circle of monochrome blue.

Behind me, Jeff closes and un-traces his doorway.

Tashi later emphasizes to me the sensitive nature of their ritual and the need to protect its methods -- which is a shame, because it was a truly breathtaking sight. All I can offer are detached fragments: fire rumbling from the earth's depths up to the ocean floor; a great rush of bubbles from below, like an oncoming wave; a column of light, rising slowly, backlighting the static of the boiling sea.

They calm the volcanic vent after an eternal 90 seconds; the glow under us begins slowly to subside. I notice while glancing around that Tiffen is so transfixed he almost forgets to record this.

I'm lost, too, swept away in the rush of nature's fury, soaking in the raw power of the spell and the greater power of the planet -- a feeling that sticks with me even as our surroundings fade back into darkness. My bearings return only when the spent crowd of mages breaks the circle and the four people at the corners start drawing us back to the dingy reality of the movie room. That's a big letdown, like stumbling out of the Amazon jungle to find a McDonald's.

Further ruining the sense of deep and awesome mystery, the mages all drop, stumbling over to chairs or collapsing onto cushions around the edges of the room. At least three simply crumple to the floor where they were standing. Now that the ritual is over, the air is as thick with exhaustion as it was earlier with possibility.

"Okay, take 15 to catch your breath," says Tashi, who looks winded herself. "But I want every one of you upstairs for some food before the hour's out. Lying there isn't going to help you gain back all the energy you just spent." She nods at Tiffen. "Bruce, let's go check in with your team."

I wait until they leave, then walk to where Jeff is sagging down in the chair he's been occupying all ritual. "Are all your tests this dramatic?" I ask.

"Hardly," he answers. "I think part of today's goal was to see how the smaller tests we've been doing would scale up."

"It looked incredible."

Jeff shakes his head. "It was a bad sign. That, just now? That was barely a fraction of the real thing. And look at us." He gestures around at the roomful of exhausted mages.

"What are you talking about, Jeff?" Alice chips in, lying motionless near us. "I'll raise that island myself, as soon as I stand up."

"Wimp," Jeff shoots back. "I'll go raise two in a row."

"Then I'll raise three," Alice retorts.

"I'll raise five," someone pipes up from a pile of cushions.

"I'll raise one for every chore you spot me," a third voice says.

"I'll raise your two clubs." The whole room is getting into the spirit.

"Three no-trump," calls "Brian," the ship's top bridge player.

"Double!" A wave of laughter erupts.

"We really must be tired," Victor says from his chair. "Thirty seconds and already y'all are descending into bridge jokes."

Stan, propped against the wall, raises an arm weakly. "Go, us!"

* * *

Back on the surface, rain has just started to fall -- a few giant drops cutting through the brisk air and staining circles on the deck. I walk out into the weather and around to where Ben is still in motion.

"So they're finished down there?" he asks without turning around.

"Uh, yes. How did you --"

"After you left the bridge, I assumed that's where you went," Ben interrupts, sweeping into the final motion of his sequence, a spread-arm claw lunge. He holds the pose for several seconds, and then turns and shifts his large body into the werewolf's standard semi-crouch, which puts him at about my eye level. "I doubt you'd have left until they were done."

"Oh. I didn't realize you saw me up on the bridge," I say. He shrugs as I do a double-take. "Wait, and how'd you know it was me just now?"

Ben smiles. I'm sure he doesn't mean to be menacing, but it's hard to ignore the mouthful of fangs. "You've been on this ship for two weeks and you can still ask that with a straight face?"

I timidly change the subject. "Rain's moving in."

"Yeah," Ben agrees. "Maybe we should go in and beat the breakfast rush. Besides," he jokes, "if I stay to keep practicing everyone's going to complain about the wet-fur smell."

"That was practice?" I ask, feeling even more lost.

He bows shallowly to me, muzzle dipping. "Second dan [black belt] in karate, once upon a time. I try to stay in shape."

"I mean, that was all just martial arts? Not some weather ritual?"

He shakes his head and strides under the overhang of the bridge roof. "I don't do any magic off-duty. My job's hard enough as it is."

Ben's job doesn't look hard from the outside -- sitting motionless in meditation all day. Appearances are deceiving. He and "Cindy," his nighttime counterpart, trade off 12-hour shifts -- no rests, no meals, no bathroom breaks. While in their trance, they have to hide this entire ship from the outside world. Front to back, antenna to keel; even the wake when we're moving. Because unwanted attention might come at any time, from above or below, they can't afford to do any less.

His crewmates all tell me that Ben's job is the most grueling on the ship. After today, I have no doubt. Now that I've seen what a few minutes of ritual can do to an entire room of mages, I can't even imagine how these two survive a full shift, let alone get up to do it day after day.

But they do -- and then stagger off to quiet, locked rooms for food and sleep. Aside from what exercise time they can snatch, that's their entire schedule at sea.

This morning is a rare exception. With other crewmates having scanned the sea for submarines and turned the weather sour, Ben says the Discovery isn't worried about visual sightings. The ritual will unavoidably tip off observers to their location, but the ship will be gone again before anything can be done about it. So the concealers are off the hook for a few precious hours each.

"Don't you get lonely with a schedule like that?" I ask Ben.

"I don't have time to." His face softens. "But I know the people who care about me do. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but right now Cindy and I are the only ones who can do this job. It's hard. Hard on me ... hard on all of us."

It's hard for Ben to share that pain with his crewmates, too. During his trance shifts, he says, he has to "become one with the Discovery" in order to extend his reach to the whole ship. Or at least that's the theory he stumbles for words to try to explain. One side effect is that for half the day, he comes to think of all his crewmates and friends as just little pieces of himself -- which makes it awkward to talk with them back in the real world.

It doesn't help that none of them understand how Ben does it. To us mundanes, of course, the underlying work is as impenetrable as a calculus equation; but even his fellow mages, who ought to be able to follow his work, can't explain it beyond the most basic generalizations. Some of his fellow mages even tell me they find the "becoming the ship" thing a little creepy.

Ben says the process draws heavily on work he did after the Changes and that he "just doesn't have the know-how to train" others in it; fortunately, Cindy had "the right background to duplicate" the work Ben was doing on intuition. (I'm never able to figure out what that background is; Cindy declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But even when Ben's crewmates are disturbed by his work, they do give him their unguarded respect.

"I honestly don't think we'd be here now except for Ben," Tashi tells me later. "The way he kept us from a confrontation back when the Navy fired on us was nothing short of a godsend. And if it weren't for him -- and Cindy figuring it out so we could stop putting him on call 24/7 -- that first attack wouldn't have been the last one. I say this only half-jokingly: We may have to name a mountain after him once the island comes up."

Ben tries to shrug the attention off. "We all believe in the project. Like everyone else, I've got a job to do."

"Does that job include fending off magical surveillance?" I ask. "I can't imagine the Navy's only trying to track you visually."

"Oh, it's not just visual," he replies, ticking off a list on his claws. "Sonar, radar, picking up our radio broadcasts. A sub followed us for a while based on engine noise ..." Ben trails off. "Magical monitoring. I, er, I probably shouldn't talk about that. Let's just say they haven't tried it lately."

I play a sudden hunch. "Is that what Ray does? Prevent that sort of thing?"

Ben lifts an eyebrow and shakes his muzzle back and forth.

"What does Ray do, then?"

Ben gives me a quick grin and gestures up above us. "Why don't you ask him?"

After Ben and I finish talking, I hurry around the corner and take the stairs up to the bridge. Nobody's in there but Laura. Where's Ray? A vague shrug: "On duty."

I search the ship. He's nowhere to be found.

I'm answering the call of nature several days later when I see something that jogs my memory. The head, like all of the ship's restrooms, has a discreet bottle of the seasickness remedy meclizine. Most on board swear by a quick steadiness spell instead, but the bottle does remind me of the mages' naval inexperience -- and their vocabulary blunders.

My brain drifts back to an odd turn of phrase I heard earlier in the trip. Suddenly, the pieces fall together.

I don't see him at lunch, though, and my curiosity builds like an itch I can't scratch. I arrive early at the dining room for dinner, keep a restless eye out, and leap to my feet the instant the short black-haired man enters the room.

"Ray," I say as I catch up to him at the window to the galley. "You're the raven I've seen up on the radio antenna. Right?"

He shrugs. "When they need me to be."

His nonchalance makes me feel a little foolish, as if I'd been expecting a pat on the head and a cookie for finally figuring it out. I press on anyway. "Is that the job you do, then? Here on the ship?"

The theri smiles as he starts serving himself food. "You could say that."

"Then ... I don't get it. With a shipful of mages to scan the area and keep the Discovery hidden, what possible benefit is there to aerial reconnaissance?"

He stops to think about that one, and chooses his words. "Those who see can also be seen," Ray says. "I think we're all happier worrying about being seen, rather than being ... 'seen'."

"Well, aren't you worried about being spotted?" I ask.

Ray smiles at me again and starts walking to a corner table with his food. "I haven't been yet."

* * *

After four weeks, still undetected, the Discovery floats into a Pacific Island port.

Virtually the entire crew is abovedecks as we churn into the harbor, excitedly taking in the sight of something besides endless ocean. There's a group cheer as Laura maneuvers us expertly against a dock. Bronze-skinned dockworkers laugh and cheer back as the Discovery's ropes fling themselves overboard and coil themselves taut around mooring cleats.

Chatter flies back and forth. Rapid, affable speech, in both English and the island's native language. This isn't the first time the Discovery has been here.

There's a general scramble onto land, and crew members scatter -- mostly in search of phones, Tashi explains. (While at sea, contact with friends and loved ones is very strictly limited due to the ship's secrecy.) Some stay to catch up with the dockworkers. Half a dozen, on chore duty, escort the chef on a brisk walk toward the markets. Others stay behind to keep an eye on the ship, or to oversee the tank draining, freshwater refilling, and refueling that will keep the vessel running smoothly for another month.

I hear a whoop and a splash from the opposite railing. I walk over and glance down into the water to see Meira folding and tucking her sarong over a rung of the ship's ladder. She waves at me, smiles, and swims off to tour the harbor, leaping and diving, turning the heads of every man in sight. She chats with those on board dozens of ships, a tireless advocate for the Discovery, and also thumps many of their hulls above the waterline with her tail.

Philip explains that's to give those ships a mermaid's blessing, a sign of great luck for superstitious sailors. "Half the town knows our ship by name, and they all love us," he says. "They're not the only ones. Out here, Meira's the best ambassador we've got."

Down in the computer room and up on the bridge, the radios and satellite phones are running full steam ahead. Tashi, Tiffen, and a handful of others are transmitting the data from this trip's tests and updating NAP's financiers, partners, and supporters. The news is good.

The energy in the stepped-up ritual I observed was sufficient to produce a three- to six-inch mini-tsunami, Tiffen says, but shorebound monitoring at the impact time detected no measurable rise. The mages harnessed and safely dispersed it. It's "the strongest evidence yet" that their theories are sound and "the island can be safely raised," he exults. "This is history in the making."

I walk around the ship to say my last goodbyes. Laura and Philip are already poring over maps, plotting out the next leg of their journey. Ben is in an uncharacteristic hurry -- he's "got people to visit" -- but hugs me goodbye and thanks me for my earlier company. And from a radio mast atop the bridge, a raven untucks his head from his wing, returns my wave with a bob of his beak, and caws a throaty farewell.

After all is said and done, I stay in the city for two days while I make travel arrangements -- the Discovery's erratic schedule and movements didn't allow me the luxury of planning ahead. I try to explore the streets around the hotel, but my heart's not in it; my mind keeps wandering back to the few dozen pioneers I just spent a month of my life with.

I head back to the docks a few hours before my flight leaves, only to find that the ship is already back at sea. There are more tests to run, more locations to plot, more magic to weave. Until the Discovery has a port to truly call home, there always will be.

As the plane lifts off into the sky back toward my own home, I keep my face pressed to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the little boat poised to change the world. Hoping maybe that some tiny black bird, some unusual storm cloud, can remind me that my entire trip wasn't some dream.

But ... nothing. The sea is excellent at keeping secrets.

Pulitzer Prize nominee Jaime Madeira, a published author in both English and Spanish, won the 2003 United Nations Foundation Prize for a series of articles on South American therianthrope issues in the newspaper Voz de Peru. Madeira grew up in California, now lives on the coast near Callao, Peru with two cats, and covers international affairs as a freelance journalist.
Tags: bamottustottwo, best of baxil, ttu, writing


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