October 21, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
Her stomach rolled, not so much from the lurching of the ship, but from the unease of starting over in a new place. She reminded herself often that she could have stayed behind in Chicago, she was a grown woman after all and could have easily gotten a job at any number of research universities or labs. Ever the humanitarian, like her mother, she signed on to help her parents build a school and research facility in the remote Pacific Sector. They’d only had rumors and a few connections to colleagues in the area in which to base their plans for this venture. Once the grants were approved by Globalnetics, the corporation sent a unit to scout the area for a potential site for their project. It took two years to find a location for the school. Globalnetics sent materials ahead to set up utilities and to break ground on the buildings. When her younger brother received his first commission in the army, he was sent to the location to maintain security and oversee operations while her family finished raising funds for the trip. They set up countless fundraising dinners and dances, inviting their friends, family and colleagues from the hospital and university her parents worked for, to give donations to their project. After a long decade of planning, the facilities were ready for them, and Sean had sent word for them to make arrangements for the big move. The trip had started at the airport, where they caught a flight to Sacramento. From there they took a ship to the Pacific Sector. Luckily, Zone 17 was in the far north of the sector, so they wouldn’t have far to travel to get to the facility from the harbor.
The atmosphere on the ship was tense; her parents, normally bastions of calm through any number of chaotic and critical situations, were showing wear from the worry over their tenuous mission. It had taken half a lifetime of work to get to this point: writing grants, speaking at endless conferences, publishing countless papers, and compiling every scrap of research on mutants and gene patterns. Her parents were leading experts in the field of mutant genetics, which in truth was hardly a field at all since there were only a handful of professionals researching the topic. Their findings were among the most heavily published and sought after scientific studies. The world had an insatiable hunger for information on the mutant problem, but most mutants lived in very remote areas and were nearly impossible to study. Globalnetics was in almost constant contact with her father; hopefully the remoteness of the Pacific would drive a wedge between them now. The government was responsible for all of the luxuries and societal comforts that she held dear, and was also the primary source of funding for their mission, but Summer often felt that Globalnetics was the shadow hanging over the freedom of men, creatively, intellectually and very often, physically. Now that alternative funding was beginning to trickle in and necessary equipment had been purchased and crated for transport, all their planning was coming to fruition and the anxiety was palpable. Just a few nights prior, after the captain had announced at dinner that they would arrive at port in just four days’ time, her mother broke down crying into her tea. She was worried that they wouldn’t find any more mutants in the Pacific than they had in their home sector, or worse, that they would find an abundance of Mutants, but none would be willing to assist them in their studies or attend the school they’d built. She had attempted to ease her mother’s fears, but found no solace in her own words, knowing they were unfounded.
Her parents had carefully selected this sector for its rumored historical significance in mutant development. Mutant blood lines could be traced back to remote areas of almost every sector, however, one of the oldest and most powerful lines of mutants were believed to have descended from the ancient Polynesians. Their lands were now encompassed within the boundaries of the Pacific Sector and though the geography and infrastructure of the area had changed significantly more than once since their emergence, Summer’s father believed a large concentration of elemental mutants could still be found here. Zone 17 was chosen specifically as the starting point for their endeavor because a large government encampment had once existed less than ten miles from the school site, and they had reason to believe that many of the occupants that survived the liberation were originally from, and could still be living in, the surrounding area.
She had reservations of her own that were far more nagging. She had left her life behind in Chicago; her friends, her students, her position at the university, and her boyfriend, Lee. Summer leaned against the railing on the upper deck of the ship, overlooking the deep azure expanse of the ocean. In the distance she could see the harbor, a small, dusty port with a single wooden pier. The salt spray stung her face, but helped to alleviate the muggy quality of the stagnant, tropical air. The sun was beaming sweltering hot rays upon the deck, but as long as they were moving it was bearable; she dreaded the moment when they would drop anchor. Despite her apprehensions, the antiquated steel vessel edged closer to the dock with each passing minute.
Her sister, Miranda, joined her on the deck. She wore an old pair of khaki pants, a little looser fitting how after two weeks of intermittent sea sickness, and a ratty, navy blue cotton shirt The skin of her face and arms was developing a lovely bronze hue from their time sunning on the deck in the long afternoons at sea. The only notable change to Summer’s own fair complexion had been an angry, red sunburn, that once peeled away, revealed the same milky tone as before. Miranda had brushed her thick, russet tresses into a pony tail at the crown of her head and a few wild strands fell out rebelliously, framing her face. Only fifteen months apart in age they looked almost like twins with the exception of their hair-Miranda being a brunette with an ever present soft curl, and Summer’s honey-colored and pin straight; and, of course, their figures. Summer had been jealous of her sister’s generous bosom and hourglass physique which being an early bloomer, had come along by the time Miranda was eleven and made their difference in age very apparent. Summer didn’t begin to catch up until almost sixteen. She’d come along nicely since then, but Miranda still far surpassed her in femininity.
Miranda smiled and shielded her eyes from the morning sun as she approached.
“Take a deep breath, the moment of truth has finally arrived!” She was being sarcastic, but the truth of it still stung.
“Hah, sure,” she scoffed, “It’s gonna be one hell of a hot first day.”
“I know; I’m sweating like a pig already. I hope we get some help moving all that gear.” Miranda was attempting to fan herself by pulling her shirt away from her body, but as soon as she released it the fabric clung snugly to her chest.
“Very attractive, Miri,” Summer made a face of mock disgust, which made Miranda laugh.
“Ever the lady, Mom would say,” Miranda remarked smugly.
Their parents didn’t emerge from below deck until the ship’s horn announced their arrival at port. A flurry of movement could be seen on the dock, which was no more than twenty feet across and in need of serious repair. The boards were bleached an ashy white from the sun and there were more than a few sections without boards altogether. The lamps that lined the structure were powered by oil; apparently the electrical lines running along the posts were not in working order. A flatbed transport truck was parked at the end of the pier on the shore. Two men leaned against the side of its tan cab. Down on the dock, two dun colored appaloosas stood tied to a post; the bustle of the men at work and boats moving in and out of the harbor did not seem to bother them. Most of the workers were barefoot and shirtless, sweating profusely in the heat. A smaller fishing vessel had just docked at the pier and crewmen were busy unloading its haul. The ship’s horn sounded twice and dropped anchor, announcing their arrival at port. The vessel was far too large to pull all the way into the harbor, and a smaller boat would be necessary to take them ashore. Miranda pointed to a spot along the shore where a jeep was speedily approaching the loading area, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Army green and stripped of any luxuries it was obviously a military vehicle.
“That must be Sean,” Miranda noted.
Her suspicions were confirmed when their brother appeared from inside the vehicle once it had stopped at the wharf. He was making his way to the gangway, drawing plenty of attention from the dock workers in his starched uniform. Against their parents’ express wishes, Sean had decided to join the Globalnetics Army at nineteen, right after he graduated from university. Her brother was young for a field officer, just turned twenty-one, but the olive uniform made him look considerably older. He was clean shaven under the brim of his cover. He’d been able to find an iron somewhere, because his pants and jacket were crisply pressed and even. Sean waved to them and smiled handsomely. He climbed into a small wooden vessel that carried him to the side of their ship. A worker dropped a line attached to a pulley over the side to him; he stepped one foot into the loop at the end and held on as he was lifted up. Once on the deck with them, her family hugged him, each in turn.
“Did you have a good voyage over?” Sean inquired as their mother fussed over him.
“Minus the vomiting, it was lovely,” Miranda noted cheekily.
“It was fine,” Jean, their mother, flashed Miranda a look that said she wasn’t pleased with her daughter’s indelicate commentary. “But I am more than ready to get off this floating can.”
“I’m sure I would agree,” Sean said with a smile, “Let’s get you guys down to the dock.” They were lowered one at a time down to the boat. Summer went last after her sister and by the time she found an empty spot on one of the boards, the boat was feeling cozy. The boat took them to the dock and Sean helped them up. It was her first time standing on a non-moving surface in weeks and her legs didn’t agree with it. She tried to steady herself enough to walk, but quickly lost her balance and began to fall. Someone caught her and suddenly she was looking up into a pair of intense eyes, two brilliant green pools that made her breath catch in her throat. The man helped her to her feet and went back to securing the lines from the boat.
Slumped over the rigging, Summer could see the man’s arms flexing with the effort of maneuvering the heavy ropes. He was large, broad-shouldered and muscular, the kind of sinewy definition that comes with years of hard labor. His skin was a deep copper color and surprisingly free of any perspiration. Sean walked past her to approach the young man.
“You! Help get those crates off the ship and down to the truck,” Sean commanded him.
The worker responded with a stern stare and silence. He couldn’t be any older than his late twenties, by Summer’s estimate, but his features were hard and serious; those eyes were his only tell.
Sean grew impatient. “Did you hear me? Get up there and do your job!”
“Sean, that is extremely rude!” Their mother interjected with abhorrence.
“I’m not here for you,” the man stated flatly, and then returned to the knot he was tying.
Sean began to march down the gangplank to confront the worker. The man stood up at his approach; at his full height he was almost a foot taller than her brother. His size didn’t seem to bother Sean though; he stopped within a few inches of the worker. The dark man stared down her brother fiercely; Summer’s heart beat fluttered with the anticipation of a scuffle.
“Is your only job tying knots then?” Sean spoke with the authority of an officer berating an insubordinate grunt.
Unphased, the man responded plainly, “I’m here to escort Mr. Pate back to his ranch and see to his belongings.” He pointed down the dock to where the truck was parked. “The three men at the truck are here to see to your party.” With that the man turned his attention to the two horses still tied to their post.
Down the wharf, Summer could see the workers he was referring to speaking with a foreman of sorts; they looked toward the ship and two of them began to walk in their direction. Both were about Summer’s age with short, clipped haircuts, dark skin, brown hair, and wearing worn canvas shorts and sleeveless shirts. One was notably chubbier than the other; not fat, but round in the face and barrel-bodied. The skinny one stopped in front of their group and extended his hand to her father as he introduced himself.
“Mornin’, sir. Name’s Patch. My friend here’s, Hunter,” he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the more robust gentleman. “Would you happen to be Doctor Harding?”
Her father shook Patch’s hand, though it was plainly unwashed, without hesitation. “That would be me, yes.” Her father smiled jovially. “This is my wife, another Dr. Harding, Dr. Jean Harding.” Pointing to each of them in turn, as he made their introductions. “My daughters, Miranda and Summer, and my son, Lieutenant Sean Harding.” Patch nodded in Sean’s direction, “I myself am Dr. Reginald Harding, but please, call me Reggie, it’s far too hot for formalities,” her father laughed heartily.
“As you like, sir,” Patch responded kindly, amused by her father’s spiritedness.
“Is it just the two of you? We have an awful lot of equipment and furniture to move, I’m afraid it will take all day if we’re the only ones moving it,” her mother fretted.
“Well, there’s the driver too, but Kai can’t do too much walkin’, so he’s stayin’ by the truck, but don’t worry ma’am, we’ll load as quick as we can. Your house’s just up the road, the trips won’t take long.” Patch tried to ease her concerns, but it was obvious the dock was shorthanded.
“Well get started then!-I’ll discuss this with the foreman; there has to be someone besides you two and a cripple.” Sean left in a huff before Summer or her mother could protest his deplorable attitude.
Her mother turned to Patch. “I am very sorry about that, my son has developed a soldier’s manners. We are grateful for your assistance,” Jean apologized gracefully.
“Oh, we been called worse, ma’am,” Patch and Hunter jumped down into the boat and prepared to head over to the ship.
Summer, her sister and her mother looked around for something to do while the men worked. She wanted to help, do anything to pass the time, but everything was too heavy for them to lift and carry the quarter mile down the pier to the truck, especially without any carts or dollies.
Jaxon Pate emerged, relaxed and polished from the boat. Jax, as he had instructed them to call him during dinner the first night of their trip, was an educated man, perhaps twenty-eight or so years old. He hailed from the Northern Sector, and had inherited a tract of land and an established ranch from his mutant uncle who had lived on the outskirts of Zone 17. He had wavy jet black hair that he kept to his shoulders, and he wore suits almost all of the times she had seen him. His family, or his uncle, or both, must have had quite a bit of money, because his clothing was of an incredibly high quality and tailored to him perfectly. He was quite attractive, pleasant, and charming, with chiseled features- a strong chin and high, prominent cheek bones. She and Miranda had enjoyed his company at dinner several nights over the last two weeks on ship and they’d spent long hours debating politics and literature over countless glasses of wine. Today, he was dressed in thick mahogany pants and a matching overcoat; he had to be drenched under it, Summer thought to herself. Patch and Hunter would probably have killed for a pair of the leather work boots Jax had on, well-oiled and barely broken in. Their helpers were barefoot on the hot steel decking of the ship. It was half an hour before Sean made it back; by then Jean was too wilted to chastise him for his earlier behavior. Summer and Miranda stood to the side making pleasant conversation with Jax. The foreman in tow, Sean looked frazzled and sweat dripped from under the rim of his hat over his face and neck.
“Well, it would appear we’re out of luck; the foreman says he can’t spare any more men,” Sean announced.
“What’s that Lieutenant?” Jax turned to Sean to ask pleasantly.
“My parents could use a few more men to move the equipment and furniture they’ve brought along down to their new estate, but it appears we picked a bad day to be in need of laborers,” Sean was always impatient and ill-tempered, but today he seemed unusually on edge; this was more and more apparent by the grizzly tone in his voice.
“Oh, I see. Well I’m afraid most of my men are back at the ranch, but I’m sure I could find one or two pairs of strong arms to assist you,” Jax smiled, divinely generous.
“That’s exceedingly kind of you, Jax,” Summer said as she touched her hand lightly to his arm.
Jax looked to the foreman. “Find Mr. Gresham and tell him he’s to assist the Hardings with their move.” The foreman nodded and left. It was only a few minutes before the stern looking man Sean had belittled when they’d first set anchor rode up on the back of one of the large horses that had been tied up earlier. The other horse was saddled and towed alongside him.
He nodded to Jax from horseback. “Mr. Pate, sir.”
“Ah, Mr. Gresham, do we have enough men to get us home without you?” Jax asked him.
“Yes, sir, just about.”
“Good, please lend your services to my dear friends here. I’ll take my horse and tow yours home with us, and I will expect you back at the ranch tomorrow morning if the Hardings have no further use for you.”
“Yes, sir.” The man dismounted and handed the reins to a boy who was standing at the landing. Before walking up the gangplank to where they were, he removed a sheathed knife, heavy handled with a long blade from the pack on the horse, which he then tucked into the back of his pants. Sean moved to block his way, placing himself between the man and her family.
“I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with this one being armed.” The two men stood locked in a battle of wills again.
Jax chucked a bit. “Believe me a knife is the least of your worries with that one, Lieutenant.” His tone was even, but the cryptic threat was there. The man Jax called Mr. Gresham wasn’t giving anything away; he continued to stare down her brother.
“That’s ominous; what should I be worried about?” Sean was growing impatient; he tapped his outer thigh with his middle and ring fingers when he was agitated and he was tapping furiously now.
Jax cracked a mischievous smirk as he walked past them to retrieve one of the saddled horses. “No fear, Lieutenant. I have every confidence that Mr. Gresham will behave himself.” He grabbed the reins in one hand and slipping one foot in a stirrup, vaulted the other leg over the saddle.
“Bark is worse than his bite then?” Sean could have been trying to size up the enigma that was ‘Mr. Gresham’ by the way he was looking him over.
Jax laughed unnervingly, but very natural. “Oh no, there’s no bark Lieutenant and the bite’s rather caustic, but his brother will keep him in line.” He turned the horse’s head toward the shore and took the reins of the second horse knotting them around the horn of his saddle. He then nodded his head in Summer and Miranda’s direction. “Good day, ladies, it was a pleasure getting to know you.” He looked to Sean and her father. “Gentlemen. I hope to see all of you again shortly, once we are all settled.” With that he gave his horse a stiff kick in the ribs and was off down the wharf.
“Well, we are very glad for your assistance, Mr. Gresham,” Summer’s mother offered, attempting to smooth the tension between her son and Jax’s employee.
“Let’s get going, I’m sure you guys are eager to see your new home,” Sean said, grabbing their attention. “There’s a helicopter waiting to take you to the site; the workers can pack the truck and meet us there.”