Beneath the Wheeling Metal Stars of Night

"Two things fill me with wonder:
 the starry sky above,
 and the moral law within."
     --Immanuel Kant


I keep the books. I stand watch.

Sometimes, I get into the interesting parts of it. There was that evening, two nights out of the Solomon Islands. We were somewhere rolling in the middle of a gale, starlight glinting here and there off waves bigger than the steamer. Miguel was up there in the dark, bracing himself against the side of the deckhouse. He was twined in the ropes, arm and foot, like a chimpanzee. He was cursing, loud enough to be heard over the storm:

"Goddammit! West-northwest by west! Will ya stop pitchin', goddammit!"

Then a sound straight out of his throat. Miguel was getting the sails furled. Somewhere out there, silently in the dark, Angelica was tying things down. Hawsers. Hatches. The sort of things that get blown away in the maelstrom.

And I was standing there behind the wheel. Holding the Simón Bolivar more or less on course, west-northwest by west. That was the course to Singapore, right? More or less. I hoped. Miguel had said something about the navigation satellite going out, right before we got in the thick of the storm. West-northwest by west it was.

I had no place out there, alongside Miguel and Angelica, in the heart of the storm. My place was here, by the wheel. Here, in the eye of the storm.


Dawn comes, with slackened waves, and gulls winging so close over the ocean that you can see their shattered reflections on the water. The sun is all a blur of red and yellow in the east.

Miguel, sitting on a crate, cursing under his breath. He has the astrolabe perched on his knee, a gainly cabbalistic thing of gleaming brass. He tells me our course. How far we have to go, if we bear straight on through.

I'm finishing off a bowl of sterno-heated oatmeal. My arms only feel like they're about to fall off. I'm glad we have someone like Miguel on board; not every ship can find its way when Skystar goes on the blink like this.

Out there, along the edge of the deck, Angelica has one arm in a rope, watching the flying fish skidding the sea. Angelica has already been up, in the early glow of dawn, tying down loose edges after the storm. Positioning crates of gears and ball bearings.

"God," says Miguel, "Damn. Damn Skystar would go out right when a damn storm like that hits us. You can always count on the 'World Peace' technology."

I'm scooping the last of the oatmeal out of the bottom of the bowl. Sounds of gulls over the water. "You know it isn't 'World Peace.' More likely dumped a whole neurocore full of navigational software-- maybe a virus still going around from the Revolution. They'll have it reprogrammed by this evening, on a tight beam from a ground station. Only that ground station's somewhere near Lake Baikal. It's not 'World Peace,' it's Kremlin code, every byte of it."

Miguel looks at me, as if at a new man, his thin eyes over a drooping moustache: "You don't say it's the Red Threat, Choy?"

"Fuck, no. That already hit when our daddies were still drooling over MTV, eh, man? And it came in a poor second at that, eh?"


That night, we can see Skystar in Pegasus, a star of about the fourth magnitude. And the polarized Morse A's and N's are coming in loud and clear, on or about thirty-one meters.

On an afternoon of sleep, I am standing watch. Miguel is down below. Angelica pacing the decks. I keep myself on trigger: I know the urges that take Angelica, or myself for that matter, and have had it drummed into me since a boyhood in Malacca that it is only penance for our sins to take it.

Out on the open Pacific, you get to know the night sky. There are rogue stars sprinkled overhead, and a cluster of them a sixth of a sky ahead of the moon:

"What the hell you s'pose is goin' on up there in the Stations, Angie?"

A moment's silence, which is expected: "Fuck if I know."

"You ever wonder... if they eat the same up there, Angie? If they... if they have the New Justice wardens breathing over them every moment they're in port?"

"God if I know." Angie is looking at me sideways out of her wideset eyes like I know I'm setting myself up if I make myself the focus of her attention much longer. Christ, I just keep the books on board the Bolivar, right? How much more should an MBA (failed) from San Diego State University be good for?

Up there, the men and women are swimming in vacuum like fish swimming in the sea. Things are moving. Ships are jockeying in between-- how far? to the moon? to Mars? to the asteroid belt?

Nobody ever talks about it. You can see the rogue stars wheeling overhead in the night, but nobody ever says what the fuck they are really up to. What's going on up there? Do they have New Justice? Or do they get steak for dinner once in a while? (I had steak once, as a twelve year old boy, in a back alley in Singapore, and my daddy missed the money later, and I had to explain...)

I feel Angelica's hand firm on my shoulder, and I have to tell myself not to tense, because this isn't going to be the sort of careful even-steven/even-stephanie minuet the priest used to drum into us in confirmation. Angelica's lips are warm and salty on mine. "Keep a tally in your mind, one column down each side," the priest used to tell us. "Every time a check goes into one column, a matching check should go in right across from it, to keep everything equal." Now Angelica is peeling my shirt off; Angelica neither knows nor cares about mental tallies and even-steven sex. All she knows is that she wants my body now. I realize that somehow Angie has also removed her own shirt, which was not very even-stephanie of her, and I am thrilled in spite of my goddam guilt-tripping feminist-Catholic upbringing.


Times, a warm afternoon out behind the cabin, on the rattan mat laid out on the deck, when a body can almost drift off to sleep. The ship is rolling easy. Sound of surf in your ears. Had an extra handful of rice for lunch today, and a sweet potato. Sweet kumara; not every day I indulge my belly like this.

Somewhere rolling, as if in a cradle, I drift my mind in the South Pacific sun. Thoughts now going, a random raster, like the vertical hold on a TV screen. Letting go.

Being a sailor on the sea, extra provisions to grab from the hold, I can do this for myself. Plenty to eat. Yes, plenty. Not as if I lived in Malacca. Or Dar es Salaam. Or Calcutta. Or Cuzco. Or Chicago. Or Denver. Or what's left of London, now twenty years after the last Football Riot. New York, God, I don't even want to think about New York. This is pleasant dreams, out on the open sea. A full bowl of rice. And no New Justice warden looking over your shoulder.

On occasion, my mind even has the luxury of rising to greater heights. I think of Miguel and Angelica, and of how, all things considered, they really aren't too bad to get along with. I think of families in Shanghai and Los Angeles and Minneapolis, eight to what used to be a one room apartment; and I think of the twenty meters of clean deck on board the Simón Bolivar, and how good it is to be here just a little outside the boundaries of the world, on a free-trade tramp steamer of questionable status; here, without a block warden or New Justice adjudicator breathing down on you every minute.

Something zips over the deck, a flying fish. My eyes are half closed. I lie back. The sun is warm on my bare chest. For the moment, I relax, I swim in being the one unneeded human being on the face of this earth, the one who doesn't have to fit, like square peg in round hole, into somebody else's politicized scheme.


Miguel insists on putting in at Labuan, off the northern coast of Borneo. Trade. Land underfoot. Get the boiler checked. Miguel is quite the one for these stops, to break up a long trip at sea. I go along with it. Who knows, we may even sell some ball bearings. Hah.

Of course, the pier warden for New Justice is all over us the moment we dock. A thin, wiry man. Hundreds of papers and forms to be filled out in triplicate and filed by this evening-- wonder why a ship small as ours needs a full time bookkeeper like me? Well, that's why. And of course there's the inevitable-- though we never say this out loud-- goddam evening encounter group. Attend it if you don't want a minus mark put down against your ship's registry, by satellite computer link to wherever they keep those damn records.

Sitting on the deck in port that afternoon, I fill out the forms, fudge them to cover up the disappearance (into our stomachs) of a kilo of rice and six potatoes. I look out over this pitiful port, like so many others: a few concrete block buildings down here near the pier, most of them well over a century old and crumbling; up farther, a sprawl of sheet metal and cardboard box shanties, shimmering in the heat like the grains of sand on a beach.

Somewhere in the midst of it, a smart two-story stone building. New Justice Authority, no doubt of that. Come and get your free two bowls of rice a day. Come and get your rationed two meters of white cotton cloth, one per capita per year. Come and get some penicillin or an aspirin, if we have any...

Up in the top windows, I don't doubt they have folk standing guard, with automatic weapons. Every once in a while, a crowd wants more than its share. It's the same here as everywhere, Labuan or Amsterdam or Baltimore.

Along toward evening, something I've seen only twice before in my life comes rolling up toward the pier, not too far down. It's a motor-car, gleaming sleek and black in the fading afternoon light. It runs silent. Electricity, probably.

Two men and a woman get out. Their clothes are rich, a dark strong fabric, but an unfamiliar cut. My mind gropes for the words: "suit" and... is it "tie"? They look like pictures out of a yellowed magazine from before World Peace, what with their pinstripe jackets and sharp-creased slacks: almost as strange as the kings and queens out of a card deck.

They board a pontoon-plane, which ghosts north out of the bay, and vanishes northward across the smooth water.

Who were they? No idea. Multinational corporate executives? Middle-level bureaucrats for New Justice? Maybe even emissaries from the Kremlin?

No use wondering. Still, I do wonder what it must be like to have several changes of clothing. To have steaks for dinner whenever you want. The thoughts and images clot in my mind before I can even frame them...


Encounter group for sailors in port that night is held in a little corrugated sheet-metal quonset hut. After the newsreel and the New Justice film ("Redistributive Justice in Pennsylvania Today") we sit in a circle on the hard-packed dirt floor. The wardens light a few tallow candles. In the flickering semi-dark, we discuss the politics of the film, careful to watch the words we choose.

Then comes the sharing time. One little man, a sailor from the petty states of the Natal coast, sits there quivering and sobbing; the words are being jerked out of him as the tears course down his cheeks:

"...then... that night in the storm... I 'us reachin' for the rope... and it 'uz... on the wr... th'other side o' me... an'... an'... I wished to m'self... in m'heart I wished... so's I could reach it easier... I wished that I was right-handed!!!"

The sound of the man sobbing in the flickering dark. Out of the dark, other voices criticizing him:

"Didn't you see at that time what a dextrist thought you were having?"

"You must really be conflicted and threatened, to have such feelings against your own left-handedness..."

Now the man is humping and cheeping in the dark, more a croaking, sobbing voice than a living human presence.

Next to him, I catch Angelica in the dark, wide-eyed, with her arms around her knees, and the glint of candlelight just right in her eyes that I can sense her terror at being the next to make her confessions. Her terror, lest they ask which side of the North American border she was born on. Somehow, you find yourself telling the truth in these little circles, even when you know it means they'll tear your flesh from your bones...

God knows, even with all her faults, Angelica doesn't deserve anything like this. Is it her fault if she was born in San Diego instead of Tijuana?

The politically correct answer is: yes.


At midnight, they herd us into another tin shed next door. Two tallow candles on the table. A stereo plate, size of a small mirror, hangs dull grey on the wall and soft music comes from it. The priest comes in through another door. He's tried to dress like us.

He claps his hands softly, and the stereo plate stops. He starts speaking to us softly. Some of the sailors are almost asleep. Others are wide-eyed, still coming down off a state of shock.

The priest is talking to us about "life." He talks about life on the deck of a ship. Looking at his uncalloused hands, I doubt within me whether he has ever served on a ship.

The priest talks about having a heart that contributes toward justice. He says that every handful of rice eaten from a ship's cargo on the high seas is rice stolen from the world's store of New Justice. Some of the sailors shift and glance back and forth at each other over this one: does he think they haven't heard that line from a priest before? does he think they intend to go hungry at sea, the same as they used to go hungry at home?

The priest speaks about the need to be always on the lookout for "oppressors." It is not clear to me just who these oppressors could be, in these latter days. Fat, sleek guerillas, holed up underground against New Justice? But then how could they be fat and sleek? Where could they lay their hands on food, if they were on the outs with New Justice?

Now the priest is talking about New Justice, and the good work it does. He refers to Franklin Roosevelt, and Vladimir Lenin, and Lyndon Johnson, and Logan Raimo-Smullen. The priest stops to inform us that Gautama and Jesus, if they were here today, would be staunch supporters of New Justice.

Without further ado, the priest makes us all form a circle around the little table. He gets out the banana slices, and the water, and talks to God, in the third person, about strange things that happened long ago and far away. As he says the words, he holds up half a banana, and breaks it in half again.

The women and men file forward, for a banana slice apiece and a sip of the water. The water... is water. The banana slice is good, though rather thin, and not very filling. By the time we're done, the pieces of the half-banana have predictably disappeared from the table into someone's clothing.

The priest sends us out into the night. Some of the other sailors are off into the town, for there is still time to find a jug, or a floating crap game, or a loaf of bread, or pleasures of the flesh. Me, I'm headed back for the Bolivar, and a good night's sleep. What's left of it.

"Choy?" It's Angelica.

She slips me half of half a banana. We walk back to the ship in silence.


Afternoon the next, in the South China Sea, the sails are helping us out under a light breeze. I feel breeze through my hair.

"Looking forward to Singapore?" Miguel is stretched out across the rope rigging laid over sacks of kumara. We had honest-to-God synthetic soy steak for lunch today, cooked on an open flame over the deck.

"Fuck, yes. There ain't no port in the whole world like Singapore." We're enjoying the sleepy feeling that comes after a full meal. I'm laid back on a hatch, with a sack of rice beneath me. Where the hell did Miguel get a delicacy like soy steak?

"Not any more, there ain't." With an oily rag tied sweatband style around his head, Miguel gazes up through narrowed eyes at the contrail of a hypersonic jet, out on the edge of the sky. San Francisco to Melbourne in thirty-five minutes.

"God, not even New York measures up. New York, the goddam little cardboard shanties come right down to the dock. The ruins of the skyscrapers in lower Manhattan, like the rotting black stubs of broken teeth, all ragged against the sky. Singapore, at least they don't let the shanties come right down to the waterfront. Singapore, they got streetlights at night coming in all the way from Tanjong Pagar to the Downtown."

Miguel chews on his cheek as he looks at the contrail. "Yah, at least Singapore's got electrification. God knows, they ever get mass production going again in this world, they might actually have electrification again somewhere outside the tropics besides the Pacific Northwest."

"God." I've got my eye on Angelica up in the deckhouse. "You know when my daddy was young, they used to have electric light bulbs all over the house?"

Miguel spits. I know it must sound to him like a fairy tale. "Bet that was before New Justice."

I roll, and the rice flows under me. The sun is half-sunk in the west; the sky grows purple in the east. "God knows."

"Goddammit, Choy, borders on the map may not count for much any more, but at least Singapore keeps itself clean of some of the worst rot! They've got electric lights! They've even got meat!"

I keep quiet about the meat when I was twelve. "Where the hell did you get those soy steaks?"

"Oh God, Choy. You an' 'Gelica were gone in to that touchy-feely group that night. Some folk come by on the pier. I traded them off a little stereo plate..."

"...A stereo plate?"

"...Yeah, that one that gave the little three-dee dramas, when you looked into it, of the men an' women gladiators goin' at it in the arena?"

"Oh, yeah."

In the east a full moon, preceded by a cluster of new stars. "Miguel... The stations up there... what the fuck you think they're up to?"

"God, I try not to think of that."

"You s'pose they go to the asteroids?"

"Oh, fuck, I hear they go to work the asteroids. I hear they go exploring, land on some of the moons of Jupiter, least they did once."

"You can't prove that."

A moment's silence. "Well, fuck, no; I can't prove they're anything more than lights in the sky. Still, y'know..."

I allow myself a deliciously naughty phrase: "Miguel, you s'pose the men up there allow themselves steaks once in a while?"

Miguel looks up at the purpling sky for more than a minute. "Well, hell, Choy, I guess anything is possible, eh? I mean, it's not as if New Justice runs 'em, eh? It's the Corporations that run the Stations, you know?"

"But they must have wardens up there."

"The fuck you say. Up there, they're surrounded by sky. What the Corporations say, goes."

"Well, fuck, Miguel, that doesn't tell you a whole lot. I mean I've looked, you know, that one time. In North America. In Pittsburgh, in Akron, in Milwaukee. In Des Moines. In Kansas City. God, in Miami, near the Cosmodrome, with the ships lifting on flames off into the sky in the north by night."

"Yeah?" Miguel is all ears. Born in Cuzco, he's never been north of the Tropic of Cancer into what used to be the First World.

"The Corporations are strong up there. But in a lot of ways it's the same as anywhere. It's all the sheet metal huts. It's all three families to a room, in a crumbling apartment complex. Yet in some ways it's different. The Kansas City shopping district, God, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I've seen them, the New Justice tanks, brown-red with weather, moving up and down their patrol routes. The Corporations are strong up there, you see. But they say the tanks carry a full complement. Anthrax. Bio-weapons. And the Corporations don't dare challenge it. They say even the Kremlin doesn't dare open its mouth."


"Keeping the Amerikan natives from going restless. Most are pretty good. But you know, every couple years, New Justice has gotta make an object lesson outta the natives. As if they're liberating the world for World Peace all over again. Just like it was the first time. Bio-weapons and all."

"No shit."

"Goddam glad we're down here, outta the whole goddam thing, in the middle of the goddam sea."

"Time for you to relieve Angelica?"


"You go call her. Got one soy steak left, split it three ways. Extra kumara for each of us for dinner, hey?"

"'Kay. Good deal." I walk, balanced, across the deck. This is what the good life is made of: an extra sweet potato to fill the belly, friends who are on my side against the wardens, and no goddam New Justice herding us at gunpoint into their shantytown heaven-on-earth. Whose kingdom shall have no end, goddammit.

That's why I like the sea.

I relieve Angie at the wheel. I hold the keel steady. I keep my eye on the horizon.

Yeah, keep your eye on the fucking horizon.

Try not to look up, at the lights in the sky that go ahead of the moon.

At something other than the actual of all possible worlds.