Cat O’ Nine Tails.
The weapon traditionally used for flogging by the Royal Navy. Made up of a handle connected to nine separate pieces of thinly-knotted cotton cord, which would be whipped across the backsides of sailors who had committed various wrongdoings. The cords were specially designed to severely lacerate the skin with each strike, the pain often terrible enough to render victims unconscious after only several blows.
Less excruciating, five-corded versions of the Cat were often used to discipline sailors under the age of majority. It is widely understood by humans that those with less experience deserve greater leniency in regards to punishment, especially if they have yet to fully grasp the significance of the rules.
“A lot of it comes down to inclusivity,” said Tup. “Crowdwork’s good for that. It’s accessible.”
The two of us had been sitting in a room with Tup for close to an hour since first meeting him, chatting as we waited for Nate to come back. Hallie’s head rested against my shoulder, although she couldn’t fall asleep with the conversation going on the background, evidenced by her occasionally whispering in my ear to have Tup shut the fuck up.
Tup knew us much better than we did him, so he ended up speaking most of the time, telling us about his life. Born in Baghdad. Came to America when he was two, started comedy at fourteen, kept it up without stopping for nine straight years. One of, he heavily implied but didn’t state outright, the most famous stand-up comedians in the world.
The rock that Hallie and I lived under was very comfortable.
He was a normal enough guy, save for the haircut. Too openly nice, I knew almost immediately, to ever get on Hallie’s good side. She had a thing about distrusting people who were willing to open up that quickly, who tried empathizing.
Projection, yeah. But she was getting better with it. It was slow, but Clem and I were chipping away at the cynicism, bit by bit. Soon would come the day when she could comprehend someone being genuinely interested in another person without being stupid or a liar, I was sure.
Tup continued to chat with far more gusto than I was able to offer up anymore, and our discussion had mostly devolved to me providing one or two word responses between long stretches of him talking. He was interesting, and I definitely would have been more engaged, had we met during normal daylight hours.
If he noticed or in any way minded how little I was participating, he wasn’t showing it.
“Yeah, you know. Making sure everyone listening can understand the joke. I can get into almost any style of comedy, but my one big pet peeve is when people write punchlines that are overly reliant on information large chunks of the audience might not be privy to. Reference humor, that sort of stuff. I hate the idea of someone missing out on a laugh just because they didn’t happen to see a popular movie or keep up with the latest celebrity gossip. It’s a shitty feeling, being on the outside of a joke everybody else instantly understands. I want to avoid that as much as possible, with my stuff.”
“Hence the crowdwork?”
“Yup! When you do crowdwork, you basically get to create your own in-jokes in real time, right in front of your audience. It works out a little nicer that way. It’s the best way to ensure that nobody is left out, I think.”
There was a soft knock on the door to the room, which opened before we could respond. It was Nate, who came alone. He spoke quietly, in sharp contrast to Tup’s inexplicable cheeriness, reminding me once again about the time and how tired I was.
“Hello, everyone. I apologize about the delay, but we’re finally ready to board you.”
I spoke without thinking.
“Aren’t we waiting for…”
A sharp, sharp pinch to my upper thigh, courtesy of Hallie. We were already deep enough into our relationship where a wealth of information could be communicated via small points of physical contact, and her current assault on my left asscheek was no exception. Using the power of love to translate, I was able to determine that she was trying to say something along the lines of “You stupid fucking idiot, shut the fuck and eat shit and die, I want to sleep, fuck you”.
Such a gentle, caring soul.
“The other performers have already called in to say that they’re running late, as have many of our passengers. I’m not quite privy to all the details at the present moment, but I’ve been informed that a large portion of southeastern air travel has been halted due to Juneflies. It’s very likely that we will remain docked for another day or two, in order to ensure that all our guests can arrive without issue.”
“We came in through Miami International yesterday late afternoon without any trouble, and it was smooth flying then. Did it start up that quickly?”
“The hatching apparently started around eight, and the swarm has yet to go lower than Orlando, but that’s still enough to ground everything that would have needed to fly through it to make it here.”
“How high and wide, if I could ask?”
“I’m not quite certain, but high enough to make flying impossible, and at least far enough to reach Dallas and Nashville.”
“It’s the season,” said Tup. “Just how it is.”
“I just hope no one is hurt,” said Hallie.
“No need to fear, Ms. Nordhoff. Casualties relating to Junefly swarms are exceedingly rare, in spite of their large scope. It’s more of an inconvenience than a danger, and that’s mostly because of the costs associated with cleanup.”
“Still,” she said. “I worry.”
Sometimes she went full ham with it, just to bug me.
“Regardless, we are ready to at least start to embark you three, and if you follow me, I can direct you to the ship. I’m sure you’re all eager to sleep.”
Standing up with Hallie, the three of us left the room and followed Nate out of the hallway and back around to the corner we’d originally stopped at, going in the opposite direction. Several new sets of hallways and ramps eventually led us to the glass gangway, which led just as seamlessly to the ship proper, marking our entrance.
There was a sort of unspoken significance about the final step, but it passed by quickly, and almost before I had even fully realized it, we were aboard the ship.
In my head, I whispered my farewell to the land. It would be nine months before we would meet again.
“Here we are, 360. Welcome to your stateroom, Ms. Nordhoff, Mr. Sualo.”
Nate opened our door with as a wide as a smile as he’d maintained since I’d met him, revealing our living quarters.
It was luxury piled on luxury, a room nicer than any hotel we’d ever stayed at, which was not by any means an insignificant metric. In spite of the small size, the furniture was ridiculously nice, carefully handwoven bedsheets and a wall-sized television giving us a tiny taste of what was to come. There were hundreds of little details signifying the sheer opulence of our given living quarters, but I was too out of it to seriously examine them, wanting to shut my eyes and stop thinking.
I stumbled in with Hallie and helped her onto the bed, planting myself on the edges in the very next moment. My ass wanted to cry with happiness. It was that good.
Sensing our eagerness to sleep, Mr. Coiner walked to me and pressed two cards into my hand. Room keys, he explained.
“Due to the Junefly swarm, it’s very unlikely that official passenger embarkation will have begun by the time you’ve woken up, but my assistants and I will be onboard to help you whenever you need anything. Dial 999 on the room’s phone to reach us as you deem necessary.”
“Thank you very much,” said Hallie. “We deeply appreciate your help, Mr. Coiner. It means a lot to me.”
Nate smiled and thanked us once more before taking his leave, closing our door. After he left, I got up to kick my shoes off and turn off the light, catching a glimpse of Hallie half-way through. Out of nowhere, she had started to shiver, her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach. I started walking back to the bed, immediately waking up a little. The room was average temperature, if not slightly warm, so seeing her suddenly start to shake so dramatically was disconcerting.
“Hallie? Are you okay?”
It took her a few seconds to start putting words together.
“…I… I got that exercise thing.”
She shook her head, taking some slow, staggered breaths.
“When you work out, you always talk about how you get the muscle soreness. That fucking thing.”
“DOMS? You have DOMS?”
“…All of a sudden, just, like, right now, my whole shoulders and back just exploded with horrible, aching soreness. Like during a bad flu, or after a workout, like you always bitch about. But… fuck. Fuuuck. Give… me something.”
I kept Ibuprofen in my backpack, although I couldn’t remember any occasion where I’d actually needed it. I dug out a bottle and stuck two tablets in her palms, which she downed before I could get her a glass of water.
“For someone your size, two at once should be enough. Give it some time. It’s not going to work instantly.”
“Maybe I should call him. You might be having something.”
“It’s the fucking flight and the car ride and all the waiting. We just sat down for fucking ever. I should’ve stretched… or… fuck, I dunno. This hurts. I’ve never fucking had this shit, not like this.”
“So I’ll call him.”
“Don’t, I don’t want to see him. It’s… not a heart thing. Not the left sides, it’s both sides, so maybe I just pulled a muscle. Whatever, fuck. Let’s… go to bed. I’m more tired than I am hurt. Just need sleep, probably.”
She threw her sandals at the wall and crawled backwards, eventually finding the opening to the covers and squeezing herself in. Once she managed to settle into a comfortable position against one of the many pillows we’d been left with, she stopped moving.
“Okay, it’s much better if I stay still. Still fucking hurts, but I can sleep like this. Good. Goodnight.”
“…Are you sure?”
“Sure. Go to bed.”
I watched her start to fall asleep for a moment, deciding that she probably wasn’t having a heart attack. It probably was a pulled muscle, or something in the same general vein. I was too tired to really think about it.
I said goodnight and prepared to join her, suddenly finding myself needing to pee. In a rush of frustrated exhaustion, I rushed to the bathroom and took a quick whiz, barely taking care to aim. Obnoxious, but I’d clean up in the morning.
There was more than I was expecting, and in the minute or so it took me to get it all out, I noticed something hanging above the toilet, something I’d seen before. It was a poster of a ship, the same one from the meeting in New York.
Not the ship I was on. One much older, made of wood and sails. The same three words were printed on it as had been on the first, and they still made just as much sense to me as they did then. As I finished up, I squinted and read them over to myself, not really pondering the meaning.
Honesty, Originality, Civility.