“My da always said death makes every man a pauper ’n every woman a saint. Least he saw it as such durin’ the war. Ya know, seein’ so many o’ his mates die.”
“You just keep an eye on the leeward side and yourn hand tight on the sweep. This old flatboat ain’t gonna steer itself, ya know. And never you mind old sayings, lest you wanna stay a boatboy all your life.”
“I tol’ you to call me Captain. Tol’ you that when ya signed on three years ago. Now shut up and mind your course.”
William thought back to the day he’d signed on, or rather had been tossed aboard by his uncle as the river float pulled away from the loading wharf. During his service to Captain, the boy had become skilled at reading the river. Tonight’s almost full moon would give plenty of light to navigate by—no need to edge toward shore for a tie-up. Profits and reputations were built on how fast a boat could get downstream with cargo. While William steered through the night-black water, Captain would doze next to him, ready to take the helm if the boy cried out a warning.
Captain held the rights to river commerce transportation on this ten-day course of the river. Others worked the stretches above and below. Those at the highest northern points built the flats, selling them off after unloading their cargoes at the agent’s docks—end of their trip, the beginning for another crew. Those crews would load whatever the agents thought valuable enough for passing downriver to other settlements. The remaining goods went west by land, sold at highly inflated prices to a growing population. Eventually, all the freshwater worm-eaten flatboats ended up beached at the river’s southern end, just before the river exhausted itself, dropping mud, trash, and bloated bodies into the ocean.
At thirteen, William was smart enough to know the era of bargemen on this river would soon come to an end. The new steamboats he’d heard about would see to that. Flatboats couldn’t go against the current, so all river cargo went one way: South. Horse-drawn wagons carrying manufactured goods made the journey north—harder and longer than the barge trips.
While Captain would use his night bed at the stern, the other three—two polemen and one passenger—would sleep in relative comfort inside the low-slung cargo shed amidship. These nights alone on the raised steering deck gave William’s mind full leeway to mull over fact and fancy. It didn’t take much attention to sight and steer away from the vees in the current created by snags, or away from water-humps flowing over submerged obstacles.
Tonight, the boy’s mind focused on what he’d seen early this morning. The two polemen were of no interest. All they did was sleep and eat until their services were needed. Captain told him the brutes were too stupid to steer, only suitable for muscle needed during cargo transfers and long-poling the ship when necessary. Captain always called the barge a ship. In the past, whenever the boy had asked the round-shouldered slack-jaws about river life, they’d simply shrugged, grunted, then turned away.
In William’s small world, the passenger was a much more interesting person—the most exciting person he’d ever met. He’d boarded at their northern-most shove-off point booking passage for the full ten-day float. On first sight, seeing him approach, Captain had called him a dandy, most likely due to his clothing, all fine and clean. Not even the muck of the wharf-side stuck to his boots. William was the only one to notice that. He’d learned it was safer to keep his eyes to the ground when in port. The roustabouts ashore didn’t like it when a lad’s eyes met theirs. Captain told him it was because they were jealous of his youth, having wasted theirs.
During the five days previous, the dandy struck up several long conversations with William. His accent and word choices were a sometimes strange sound to William’s ears, but as the days wore on, those trifles became less apparent. While the boy asked the obvious who, what, where and when questions about the passenger’s life and travels, the other asked about the boy’s opinions, about other people, his life here, and what he planned to do in the future.
This morning, during one of those conversations, something strange had met William’s eye. The dandy’s coat tail snagged on a wood sliver jutting out from the steering deck when he stood to address Captain. For a moment, William captured sight of a small blue sparkle in the center of a black disc no larger than a silver dollar, attached to the man’s belt—a place usually hidden by his coat, at his side, near his back. The boy thought it might be a jewel of some sort, reflecting sunlight. But no, the sun was in the wrong place for that—its light wouldn’t have struck the disc. William found he had an intense, growing curiosity about that thing—an almost devious desire to touch the hidden piece. That urge became a driving force, a reason for his existence. Tonight, he would find a way.
Opening the immersion chamber, Scott welcomed his friend back to the real.
“Rise and shine, Roger. Time to look over the data with a fine-toothed comb. But I must say, after a cursory review, I think we’re finished debugging the software.”
Roger slung his legs over the edge of the reclining capsule. It always took him a few moments before he felt sure enough to stand. Looking up, he addressed his business partner.
“The new code loops worked great. It was a bit creepy at first, interacting with AIs knowing they had no inkling they were operating inside a contrived world. Especially the boy. I got the feeling he knew more than he should. But after a few days, the virtual world felt like a primitive vacation. A very stimulating experience.”
“Hey, what can go wrong? Once born, the free-will AIs evolve and exist only in holo-space. This will be a huge leap in entertainment. We’re going to be filthy rich after this upgrade is released.”
Unseen, watching, listening to the men’s conversation, William had other plans.